A Baltimore-based refugee aid organization that is normally charged with helping victims of torture and civil war from far-flung countries said today it will try to help detainees from Guantanamo Bay settle in the United States after a federal judge ordered that they be released immediately.
The 17 men, who have been held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo in Cuba for nearly seven years, allege they have been mistreated by the U.S. government and were seeking their freedom and asking to come to the U.S.
"It's ironic," says Susan Krehbiel, vice president of Protection for the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "Our organization usually gets United States government protection for refugees from Burma, Bhutan and Iraq, and now we are in the position of trying to help refugees from our own government's actions."
Krehbiel was present in court today when Federal Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the release of the 17 men, who are ethnic minorities from China, called Uighurs. The Uighurs claim abuse by the government of China.
The men were captured by the U.S. in Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of the war on terror and have been detained for years at Guantanamo Bay.
Until last September, they were designated "enemy combatants" by the U.S. government. In his ruling, Urbina rejected the Bush administration's arguments that he lacked authority to order the release of the men into the United States.
"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause, the government's continued detention of petitioners is unlawful," Urbina said in his ruling.
Late Tuesday night, the U.S. government filed an emergency appeal of the ruling..
Several Uighur families living in the Washington, D.C., area say they are hoping the government fails in its attempt to appeal and are offering to temporarily host the former enemy combatants.
One is Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uyghur (Uighur) American Association. He lives as a permanent resident in the U.S. and told the court his group is "ready and willing to help."
Another ethnic Uighur willing to help settle the men is Rebiya Kadeer, who claims in court papers that she met with President George W. Bush to discuss the plight of her people and was referenced by Bush in a June 2007 speech.
The Department of Justice released a statement: "The government advised the court in its submissions that these Uighurs were captured near Tora Bora by the United States and its allies following military operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban, that the Uighurs were receiving weapons training in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and that, although the United States no longer treats these Uighurs as 'enemy combatants' of the United States, and has been seeking to transfer them out of Guantanamo Bay, and to appropriate foreign countries willing to accept them, the government does not believe that it is appropriate to have these foreign nationals removed from government custody and released into the United States."
What is still unclear is the exact immigration status that will be given to the Uighurs if the U.S. government fails in its appeals.
The government has said it is willing to release the Uighurs to any country that will take them except the United States and China. In court papers, the government says it will not send the Uighurs -- who have faced political persecution in China -- "involuntarily" to their homeland, consistent with U.S. policy of not returning individuals when it would be "more likely than not that they will be tortured."
Krehbiel says she hopes they will be able to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, and that her organization is looking for long-term housing.
"These gentlemen would not be here if it weren't for our own government's actions," Krehbiel says. "We want to remain truthful to our humanitarian call, and help them."
"They love the United States," says George M. Clarke III, a lawyer for two of the detained Uighurs.
Clarke says the United States created the problem and now must figure out a solution as to what to do with the former detainees. "The U.S. picked them up, paid bounty hunters for them in Pakistan," he says.
"The United States caused this. They took people who did have a home and put them in Gitmo, and then they argued they wanted to leave them to rot there."