A federal appeals court on Wednesday temporarily blocked a judge's decision to immediately free 17 Chinese Muslims at Guantanamo Bay into the U.S.
In a one-page order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued the emergency stay at the request of the Bush administration. The three-judge panel said it would postpone release of the detainees for at least another week to give the government more time to make arguments in the case.
The appeals court set a deadline of next Thursday for additional filings but it is up to the judges to decide how quickly to act afterward.
"The decision is quite a blow," said Emi MacLean, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing many of the detainees. "We basically have to go to the men after telling them they would be released, and say that their detention is once again indefinite."
"It's hard to believe there is any sense of justice in a situation like that," she said. "We will continue to argue strongly that the judge's order is meritorious and continues to stand."
The three-judge appeals panel that halted the detainees' release included Judges Karen Henderson and A. Raymond Randolph, both appointees of the first President Bush, and Judge Judith W. Rogers, who was appointed by President Clinton.
The appeals court's move comes after U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina on Tuesday made a dramatic decision. Urbina said it would be wrong for the Bush administration to continue holding the detainees, known as Uighurs (pronounced WEE'gurz), since they are no longer considered enemy combatants.
"We are pleased that the Court of Appeals granted our request for a temporary stay, and we look forward to presenting our case," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in response to the appeals court decision.
The Bush administration had asked the appeals court to block Urbina's order no later than Wednesday. The detainees were scheduled to arrive in Washington early Friday and appear in Urbina's courtroom for release to local Uighur families who have agreed to help them settle into the United States.
The government says the detainees at the U.S. naval base in Cuba had admitted receiving weapons training in Afghanistan and were a national security risk.
Earlier Wednesday, lawyers for 17 Chinese Muslim detainees urged the appeals court in filings not to interfere with Urbina's decision, which is the first court-ordered release of Guantanamo detainees. The detainees said they have been cleared of wrongdoing and have waited long enough for their freedom after being held at Guantanamo for nearly seven years.
"The government would prolong by months, and perhaps years, an imprisonment whose legal justification it has conceded away," the detainees' lawyers wrote in filings.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration said it was continuing "heightened" efforts to find another country to accept the Uighurs, since the detainees might be tortured if they are turned over to China.
"There are extensive efforts. We oppose the idea of their release here," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Albania accepted five Uighur detainees in 2006 but has since balked on taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China.
The Justice Department criticized Urbina's decision as undercutting immigration laws that dictate how foreigners should be brought into the country. It also cited security concerns over weapons training the Uighurs received at camps in Afghanistan.
Such a potential security risk outweighs the inconvenience the detainees might suffer in waiting a while longer at Guantanamo, government lawyers contended.
Uighurs are from Xinjiang - an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations - and say they have been repressed by the Chinese government.
The Uighur detainees were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.
China has long said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang. The Beijing government has repeatedly urged the U.S. to turn the Uighurs over to Chinese authorities.
The Uighurs case is among dozens of Guantanamo cases currently being reviewed by federal judges after the Supreme Court ruled in June that foreign detainees at Guantanamo have the right to appeal to U.S. civilian courts to challenge their imprisonment.