Guantanamo Uyghur Detainees: Coming to America?

17 ethnic Uyghurs originally from China might soon enter the United States.

April 24, 2009, 4:07 PM

April 24, 2009— -- They've been in legal limbo since last year, but speculation is now swirling that some of the 17 Uyghurs held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay could soon be released into the United States.

Sources on Capitol Hill told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Friday that Congressional leaders have been told that the men, ethnic Uyghurs originally from China, might be sent to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The area is home to a small Uyghur community that has expressed willingness to take the men in.

The group of Uyghurs has spent seven years at Guantanamo Bay, though the U.S. government no longer considers them enemy combatants.

Nury Turkel, a former president of the Uyghur American Association, is a U.S.-trained lawyer who represents the detainees. He called the prospect of the Uyghurs' release "excellent news." However, he said, "I hope the men and Uyghur-American community won't end up disappointed like the previous times where we believed [the] Uyghurs' freedom was just a few days away."

Last October, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit blocked an order from a lower court to release the 17 Guantanamo detainees onto U.S. soil.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, jumped on reports of the Uyghurs' upcoming release, saying in a statement Friday that he hopes the Obama administration would provide information to Congress and "a guarantee of safety for American citizens" before releasing "these terrorist-trained detainees onto the streets of a U.S. community."

McConnell asserted that the administration has not yet provided such assurances.

"There's a reason U.S. law prohibits the entry of anyone trained in a terrorist camp," he continued. "Why that law would be ignored to bring terrorist-trained detainees into American cities has not been answered by this administration."

But Turkel said "Americans should not be afraid of the Uyghur prisoners in Gitmo because they have no beef with Americans or hostility towards the U.S. Actually, they're grateful to the U.S. government for the freedom and opportunity that it has given to Uyghurs in here."

"They consider America as a natural ally in their struggle against communism and dictatorship."

It is believed that if the United States returned the men to China, they could be tortured.

Release of Detainees into the United States

Vice President Joe Biden told CBS News earlier this year that the administration "won't release people inside the United States because all but one, I believe, is not an American citizen, an American national."

But asked at Friday's White House press briefing about reports that up to seven of the Uyghurs could soon settle in the United States, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declined to address their status.

"I have no announcements to make today on any individual cases about those that are currently being held there, except to tell you that the president issued, as you know, an order to close the facility within one year, and that that review is being undertaken now, to determine how to bring about swift justice for those that are there," Gibbs said.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who is leading the interagency panel tasked with reviewing the cases of the detainees held at Guantanamo, indicated earlier this month that the Uyghurs could be coming to the United States, but that the decision was not imminent.

A Justice Department statement issued Friday said that it's "not in a position to comment on the final disposition of the Uyghurs or any other detainee at Guantanamo Bay this time," but that a "comprehensive review of each detainee held at Guantanamo Bay" is underway as part of the implementation of President Obama's order to shutter the detention facility there.

The Guantanamo Review Task Force "is conducting a case-by-case analysis to determine the best available option for addressing each detainee, including the 17 Uyghurs," the statement concluded.

ABC News' Jake Tapper contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events