The federal judge who this week ordered the release of 17 Chinese Muslims held for seven years at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo without charges struck a major blow for the rule of law amid the ongoing war on terror. In doing so, he delivered a major rebuke to the Bush administration's handling of those it describes as enemy combatants at the U.S. detention facility in Cuba.
The men were ethnic Uighurs from Western China who had fled their homes for Afghanistan because they feared persecution by Chinese authorities.
When the U.S. toppled the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan in 2001, the bombing campaign drove the Uighurs (pronounced ("WEE-gurz") from their Afghan camps across the border into Pakistan, where they were captured and turned over to U.S. forces.
Since then, they've languished at Guantanamo, even though they were never members of al-Qaida or the Taliban, never engaged in hostile action against U.S. or allied forces and were mistakenly swept up by Pakistanis eager to collect the bounties offered for Islamic militants. .
In July, the Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo detainees can challenge their imprisonment in federal court. After looking at the facts of the case, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina rejected the government's claims that the men posed a security risk and that only the president had the power to free them. Because U.S. law prohibits returning them to China, where they would likely face persecution, Judge Urbina ordered them released into the U.S., saying "separation-of-powers concerns do not trump the very principle upon which this nation was founded - the unalienable right to liberty."
Though the Justice Department has vowed to appeal the decision, the ruling appears to have put a big dent in the president's previously unlimited power to detain enemy combatants indefinitely.
Since the beginning of the war of terror, the Bush administration has been fixated on the idea that there should be no limits on the president's power to prosecute suspected terrorists, even if there was no evidence against them. Many experts warned that in taking that position, the president was setting himself above the law. Democracies must guard against giving up the fundamental rights and liberties they stand for in the name of protecting them.
The Bush administration has seemed oblivious to that danger in nearly every arena, from the domestic surveillance and spying on American citizens to the torture and indefinite detention of prisoners abroad. Historically, the right of habeas corpus has been the chief legal means for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary government action. The administration's insistence on keeping the Uighurs at Guantanamo seems particularly arbitrary and wrongheaded.
It shouldn't have taken seven years and a federal case for authorities to realize these men posed no threat to the U.S., but even now the Bush administration still doesn't seem to get it.