The Justice Department, in a move that could put new pressure on a federal judge to decide whether Guantanamo prisoners are to be released when no longer considered “enemy combatants,” has decided to take all 17 members of a Chinese Muslim minority — the Uighurs — off of that enemies list.

 In a filing on Tuesday night in U.S. District Court, the Department said it would now put 12 of the Uighurs “into the same category” of five others who it had decided earlier not to treat further as combatants.

In a response filed Wednesday, lawyers for the 12 prisoners promptly asked the judge handling their habeas cases — District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina — to order their immediate release after a hearing in his Court next Tuesday.  “The government,” that memo said, “has abandoned any right to contend that it may justify the imprisonment of any petitioner before this Court on the grounds that he is an ‘enemy combatant.’ ”

And those lawyers renewed their plea — rejected on Monday by Judge Urbina — to have at least some of the Uighurs brought to Washington to attend that hearing.  The judge said a prisoner is to be produced for a habeas hearing only if the hearing will be about disputed factual issues.  This hearing, the judge’s order said, involves only “the legality of their detention.”  There are no “outstanding factual issues,” the order added.

None of the 12 prisoners will be sent back to their home country, China, because they and the U.S. government share a belief that they would be subjected to torture or abuse there as a persecuted minority.  But the Justice Department has vigorously objected to any movement of any Guantanamo prisoner, even temporarily, into the U.S.  At the hearing Tuesday, lawyers for both sides will be arguing whether Judge Urbina has the authority to order the Pentagon to transfer the Uighurs to the Washington area, to stay there while they await resettlement.

In its Tuesday filing, the Department told Judge Urbina that it would continue its efforts “to resettle them in a foreign country,” but would continue to keep them at Guantanamo — in “special housing” — until such resettlement could be accomplished.

Attorneys for the Uighurs, in their new memo to Judge Urbina, said their information was that as many as six of the prisoners “are still imprisoned in solitary confinement” in the most restrictive camp at Guantanamo.

They added that, for the hearing next week, each of the Uighurs “has an absolute, indefeasible right to be present to contest any fact asserted by the jailer to justify continued imprisonment in Guantanamo.”  Now that the Pentagon has decided that they are not combatants, the attorneys said, “the government is now estopped to assert any factual basis to withhold the Great Writ.” 

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