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Guantanamo Prisoners' Fate Subject to Legal, Legislative Action

Camp Justice, site of the U.S. war crimes tribunal compound at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

Camp Justice, site of the U.S. war crimes tribunal compound at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

(RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center by next January. But time is growing short, and there's still no clear plan on what to do with the estimated 220 detainees who remain at the facility.

The U.S. Senate on October 20 took a step toward the White House's goal by voting by a large majority to allow detainees to be taken to the U.S. mainland to face trial. They would not be permitted to remain in the United States afterward, even to serve prison terms.

The same measure passed the House of Representatives last week, and will now be sent to Obama for signing into law.

But the legislation doesn't help provide a long-term solution for what to do with the detainees, only about 60 of whom face charges of terrorism-related activity.

The other prisoners have been cleared as threats to national security, and in theory are free to leave Guantanamo.

The U.S. government has sought countries willing to take the prisoners, but only a handful have been accepted.

Uyghurs In No-Man's-Land

Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a group of 13 Chinese Uyghurs who want to be allowed to live in the United States.

They were ruled nonthreatening to U.S. national security in 2003, but can't be sent back to their homeland, China, under U.S. law because they would probably face persecution there.

The Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people with strong links to Central Asia, are chafing under Beijing's rule. Earlier this year, Uyghurs staged large riots in the northwestern province of Xinjiang in which hundreds of people died.

The Pacific island state of Palau has taken in several Chinese Uyghur prisoners from Guantanamo, as have Bermuda and Albania. But other foreign countries have been reluctant to provide them a new home.

In considering the Uyghurs' case, the Supreme Court will have to refer to its own ruling of June 2008 that said federal judges have the power to order detainees be released, depending on security concerns.

A federal court judge subsequently ruled that the remaining Uyghur prisoners must be released immediately into the United States because their continued confinement was unjustified and the government could find no other country willing to take them.

But a federal appeals court overruled the finding, saying the judge lacked the authority to order detainees released into the United States.

The Uyghurs now say standing before a federal judge makes no sense if he doesn't have the power to free those wrongly held.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case early next year.

with news agency material