Federal judge orders release of Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

In what the AP calls “a landmark decision,” a federal judge has ordered the release of a small group of Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo Bay into the United States. The detainees, who the Bush administration no longer considers enemy combatants, had been held for almost seven years. NBC News Justice Correspondent Pete Williams reports that the Bush administration doesn’t want the detainees coming to the U.S. because “that sets a legal precedent.” Watch it:

Before the ruling, the Bush administration argued that the judge, Ricardo M. Urbina, did not “have the authority to release the men into the United States and that they should not be sent back to China where they likely would be tortured.”


HOST: Some breaking news, for the first time, a federal judge has ordered the release of some detainees held in Guantanamo Bay. Let’s go to NBC’s Pete Williams with the details. Pete, what can you tell us?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is a big deal because for the first time in the six plus years that Guantanamo Bay has been a detainee center for enemy combatants picked up overseas a federal judge has ordered that some of them should be released and released into the U.S., a step that the Justice Department and the Bush administration have continually opposed. Now these are twelve people who are from China originally. They’re Muslims are from China, an ethnic minority known as Uighurs. They’ve been held for quite some time at Guantanamo Bay, but just recently the Justice Department and the Bush administration said they were no longer considered by the U.S. enemy combatants. So, the question has been, what to do with them. They can’t be sent back to China, the U.S. and the Uighurs both believe because both parties believe that they’d be tortured if they were sent back there. The U.S. has been unwilling to accept them here. And today a judge said, well, they have to come here because there’s no where else to send them and you no longer have any right to hold them at Guantanamo Bay because they’re no longer enemy combatants. So, the next step here is will the Justice Department appeal this, will they try to get higher courts to block the release into the U.S. That could be a very difficult mission. And you know, that does raise a larger question about Guantanamo Bay because as the U.S. tries to get other countries around the world to accept some of the detainees that the U.S. itself believes should no longer be held there. Many of those countries are saying, “hey, you set up Guantanamo Bay, you, you know, you should take some of them too.” So this is a very key issue in the history of Guantanamo Bay.

HOST: So, Pete, give me a little more detail on the appeal that might come forward. How soon would we know about that and what’s the procedure moving ahead?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think we would know quite soon. The Justice Department and the Bush administration have been very steadfast in opposing any of the detainees coming here for a couple of reasons. One is, I think the larger reason, is they don’t want to set a legal precedent because once these detainees set foot on U.S. soil that changes their posture in terms of the kind of access to the courts they have and while it may not be a big deal for the Uighurs, they don’t want to set a precedent here that other detainees at Guantanamo Bay could follow. How quickly? It would happen within a matter of days, I think, that the government would appeal.