High Court to Hear Plea From Gitmo Uighurs

generic guantanamo bay - supreme court CBS/AP

The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will hear a new case about the rights of Guantanamo detainees, this time involving prisoners who remain in custody even after the Pentagon determines they're not a threat to the United States.

The high court said it will take a challenge from Chinese Muslims at the U.S. naval base in Cuba who no longer are classified as enemy combatants. Last year, the court said in a 5-4 ruling that federal judges could ultimately order some detainees to be released, depending on security concerns and other circumstances.

But a federal appeals court overturned a judge's order to do just that in the case of the Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, saying judges lacked authority to order detainees released into the United States.

CBS News Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor Andrew Cohen explained that what the Supreme Court rules in this case will supplement its previous ruling on detainees.

"The men here have been determined by our own military not to be combatants against the United States," Cohen said. "But the government is reluctant to send them back to China where they would be considered terror suspects. So the Supreme Court has to decide whether and to what extent they may be simply be set free."

The Obama administration urged the court to stay out of the case, noting that diplomatic efforts to find a place for the Uighurs are ongoing.

Cohen, who writes CBSNews.com's Courtwatch blog, explained that this case will help the court tie up whatever loose ends it didn't address in its previous ruling.

"The Court has to clean up the mess it made for itself - and the White House - last year when it ruled somewhat cryptically that some detainees may be released in certain circumstances once they are deemed not to be security threats," Cohen said. "The lower courts apparently can't agree on when those circumstances begin and end."

Even since the administration's court filing, four Uighurs have been sent to Bermuda, while six have accepted an invitation to move to Palau. The Pacific nation has offered to take six of the seven other Uighurs at Guantanamo.

The administration has indicated that some departures for Palau are imminent.

One Uighur, Arkin Mahmud, has nowhere to go, his lawyer told the court.

"No nation has offered him refuge," the lawyer, Sabin Willett, wrote the court.

The justices will hear the argument early in 2010, although it is possible that if the administration succeeds in relocating the Uighurs by then, the case could be dismissed.

Uighurs are from Xinjiang, an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They are Turkic-speaking Muslims who say they have long been repressed by the Chinese government. China has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang. The Uighur detainees were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.

The case is Kiyemba v. Obama, 08-1234.
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