The High Court Dismisses the Uighurs’ Case

By / 3.1.2010

On March 23 the Supreme Court was set to hear Kiyemba v. Obama, the most significant case regarding Guantanamo Bay detainees since it decided that detainees had the ability to challenge their detention through use of the constitutional right of habeas corpus. The question before the court in Kiyemba was whether if a Gitmo detainee is granted release by a federal court through a habeas corpus challenge the executive branch must let him go him even if it meant releasing them into the United States. Today, the court decided to avoid answering that question and sent Kiyemba back to a lower federal court.

Here’s a brief background of the case. The detainees involved in Kiyemba are members of a Chinese ethnic minority called the Uighurs. U.S. forces captured them at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan shortly after the beginning of operations there. The Uighurs were training to carry out terrorist attacks against China. They eventually ended up at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and were held there for years despite the fact that they were not deemed to be enemy combatants. They were held because legal constraints prevented the U.S. from transferring them back to China due to the likelihood that they would be tortured — even executed — and the U.S. could not find another suitable country to accept them. The Uighurs filed the Kiyemba suit demanding they be set free even it if meant releasing them into the U.S.

The central issue in Kiyemba is this: What good is the right to challenge detention if there is not also a right to be released from incarceration? It seems logical that when a court decides that a prisoner is not being lawfully held, he is entitled to be released immediately. However, it is not so black and white with the Gitmo detainees.

There are serious concerns over releasing Gitmo detainees on U.S. soil. One is that a court could end up releasing a dangerous detainee because of shaky evidence that couldn’t be used for their prosecution. It has proven difficult for government attorneys to justify the continued detention of some detainees because evidence against them was classified, tainted by questionable interrogation techniques, rests with government operatives still overseas, or is based on questionable statements made by fellow detainees. This means that a dangerous detainee could actually be released into the U.S. because of a lack of reliable evidence to justify their detention.

Another legitimate concern is that even if a detainee was not a danger to the U.S. when they began their incarceration, they are now. As you can imagine, being wrongfully incarcerated by a country for years may lead to some pretty negative feelings toward that country – feelings that could be expressed violently.

Finally, there is the “not in my back yard” argument. No one is going to want former Gitmo detainees in their community. Even though a detainee may not be a legitimate security threat, a volatile situation could be created by citizens that are afraid of or angry at a detainee in their community.

Tackling difficult and complex issues is the Supreme Court’s most important job. Did the court punt on a major issue in this instance? Some might think so, but this case is different — the security concerns involving Gitmo detainees are very real and very serious.

The fact is that there are diplomatic solutions to the problem. In the Uighurs’ case, only five out of the original 22 Uighurs remain at Gitmo. The executive branch has been working hard to relocate them, and had recently persuaded Switzerland to take two of the men. In addition, the other detainees had been offered -– and refused – to be released to the island nation of Palau. The administration argued that those offers changed the circumstances under which the detainees’ challenge was brought in the first place -– an argument with which the court agreed.

By sending it back to the lower court, the Supreme Court forestalled having to rule on a difficult question. Indeed, if the remaining five Uighurs are released to another country, the judicial system will be able to avoid having to make a decision on the case. Once the Kiyemba case is resolved, the executive will have more time to relocate the remaining detainees at Gitmo, and hopefully will be able to right the constitutional ship through diplomatic efforts rather than by judicial order.