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Guantanamo inmates get high court review

The Supreme Court agreed to decide whether judges can order the release of Guantanamo Bay prisoners into the U.S., accepting an inmate appeal opposed by the Obama administration and setting up a separation-of-powers showdown.

The justices on Tuesday said they will hear arguments from 13 Chinese Uighurs who have been held without charges at the U.S. naval base in Cuba since 2002. The federal government, which acknowledges the Uighurs don’t pose a threat to the U.S., has been trying for years to transfer them to another country.

The decision to hear the appeal suggests the justices may be poised to reinforce rulings that since 2004 have limited the president’s power to hold prisoners without judicial review. The case looms as the Obama administration’s first clash at the Supreme Court over Guantanamo detention policies.

“It would be hard to overstate the importance of the question presented in this case – to the rule of law and to the public,” lawyers for the Uighurs argued in the appeal.

The Obama administration, which urged against a Supreme Court hearing, might still be able to avoid the high court fight by resettling the men in the next several months. Under the court’s normal scheduling procedures, the justices would hear arguments early next year, possibly in February or March.

Palau, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, has agreed to accept 12 of the Uighurs, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Obama’s top courtroom lawyer, told the Supreme Court in a Sept. 23 letter. The government hopes that, of the 12, eight will agree to go to Palau, she said. U.S. officials have said that returning them to China would subject them to torture or death.

Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, on Tuesday said he had no immediate comment on the court’s decision to hear the case. President Barack Obama has pledged to shut down the Guantanamo prison.

In the Senate on Tuesday, lawmakers plan to vote on spending legislation that might complicate the high court case. The measure would allow Guantanamo inmates to be transferred to the U.S. only for purpose of standing trial.

A federal appeals court in Washington, voting 3-0, ruled that a trial judge was wrong to order release of the Uighurs. The panel pointed to “the ancient principle that a nation-state has the inherent right to exclude or admit foreigners and to prescribe applicable terms and conditions for their exclusion or admission.”

Though controlled by the U.S. under a 1903 lease, Guantanamo is on Cuban sovereign territory.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Guantanamo prisoners can challenge their detention in federal court by filing a so-called habeas corpus petition, a legal device that dates back to 14th century England. The 5-4 majority said judges considering habeas petitions “must have the power to order the conditional release of an individual unlawfully detained.”

Kagan defended the appeals court ruling. “There is a fundamental difference between ordering the release of a detained alien to permit him to return home or to another country and ordering that the alien be brought to and released in the United States without regard to immigration laws,” she argued in court papers.

The Uighurs contended that the lower court ruling “subordinates judicial authority to relieve unlawful imprisonment to the discretion of the political branches.”

The detainees are from a predominantly Muslim far-western region of China called Xinjiang. Most or all of them were living in a camp in the Tora Bora Mountains in Afghanistan when a U.S. bombing campaign destroyed the camp in 2001. They fled into Pakistan, were captured and eventually were turned over to U.S. authorities.

The government says that most of the captured Uighurs later acknowledged they had gone to the camps to receive weapons training to help them fight against the Chinese government.

They live in what Kagan called “relatively unrestrictive conditions” at Guantanamo. Their communal housing camp includes an outdoor recreation space, a picnic area, an air-conditioned bunk house, a television and sports equipment, Kagan said.

“If President Obama is truly committed to closing Guantanamo, he should help these men restart their lives here in the U.S.,” said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the Uighurs. “If we expect the rest of the world to help us end this mess, we have to start by taking some responsibility for cleaning it up ourselves.”

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