WASHINGTON (AFP) — A US federal appeals court has blocked the release of 17 Chinese Muslim Uighurs from the Guantanamo Bay prison until more legal hearings are held in November.
The men have been held at the US "war on terror" detention camp for more than six years without charges.
A federal judge on October 7 had ordered the men released and brought to the US capital, home to a significant Uighur community.
But in a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday agreed to a request from the US government to suspend the release and scheduled oral arguments in the case for November 24.
The panel "ordered that the motion for stay be granted and the district court's order directing that appellees be released into the United States be stayed pending further order of the court," the decision said.
The Uighurs were living in a self-contained camp in Afghanistan when the US-led coalition bombing campaign began in October 2001. They fled to the mountains, but were turned over to Pakistani authorities, who then handed them over to the United States.
The group has been held in limbo at Guantanamo -- despite being cleared for release by the US government -- because officials can not find a country willing to take them. The men cannot be returned to China because of fears they would be tortured there as political dissidents.
Lawyers for the Chinese Muslims demanded they be freed immediately on US soil.
Government lawyers rejected the demand, saying the Chinese Muslims pose a potential national security risk.
The potential risks, said the US Justice Department in court documents, were compounded by the fact "that petitioners were detained for six years by the country to which the district court has ordered them brought."
The administration also argued the release of the Chinese inmates could make it more difficult for the government's attempts to negotiate with third countries for the resettlement of detainees.
Only Albania has agreed to take Uighur detainees, welcoming a group of five in 2006.
The US government fears the earlier district court's decision could affect other cases before the federal courts, with some 250 detainees still held at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, many of whom are challenging their detentions.
The fate of the Uighurs has sparked a feud between diplomats in the State Department and lawyers in the Justice Department, the New York Times reported last week.
The Justice Department's allegation that the Chinese men represent a potential danger to the public had undermined efforts to persuade other governments to accept the Uighurs, the paper wrote, citing officials.
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