Page last updated at 09:22 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 10:22 UK

US top court to hear Uighur case

Guantanamo Bay US military prison
The Uighurs remaining at Guantanamo have been there for nearly eight years

The US Supreme Court has said it will hear a case about the rights of Chinese Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

A number of ethnic Uighurs are still being held despite no longer being deemed a threat to the US, after the Pentagon cleared them in 2004.

The court will decide whether federal judges have the right to order their release into the US when no other country can be found to take them.

US President Barack Obama wants to close Guantanamo by 22 January.

The Supreme Court is unlikely to hear arguments in the case before late February, the New York Times reports, a month after Mr Obama's deadline.

However, administration officials have recently indicated that meeting this date for closure will be complicated.

The case which will come before the Supreme Court justices concerns 13 Uighur detainees.

They continue to be held at Guantanamo although they are deemed to pose no threat to the US.

In October 2008, a federal judge ordered the Uighurs to be released into the care of their supporters in the US.

That decision was overturned in February when a federal appeals court ruled that only the executive branch, not the judiciary, could make decisions on immigration.

But last June, the Supreme Court ruled that foreign suspects held in Guantanamo Bay had the right to challenge their detention as an enemy combatant in US civilian courts - in effect, that federal judges can hear habeas corpus claims from detainees.

The appeal by the Uighurs to the Supreme Court is the next logical step to determine what powers a judge has to release such a person, the Washington Post says.

Immigration laws

The US justice department, arguing unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court not to hear the case, said that the Uighurs were free to go to "any country that it willing to accept them".

"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," Solicitor General Elena Kagan wrote.

The Obama administration is making efforts to find a place for the remaining Uighur detainees to go.

Four were sent to Bermuda in June and the Pacific island nation of Palau has said it will take 12 of the remaining 13.

Only one Uighur has not been offered a refuge in another country, his lawyer told the court.

But some of the Uighurs who have been invited to go to Palau have expressed concern the island may be too close to China to be safe. China considers the Uighurs to be separatists.

Another five went to Albania in 2006.

The group of 22 Chinese Muslims were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001.

The US has said it will not send them back to China for fear they will be tortured or executed.

Beijing demands their handover, saying the detainees are leading an Islamic separatist movement in western China.

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