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Can US judges order detainees released?

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Although the government concedes that it is no longer treating the Uighurs as enemy combatants, the 17 men remain confined at the detention camp. The Bush administration says it cannot return the men to China because, as members of a persecuted ethnic minority group, they may face human rights abuses. No third country has been willing to accept them, in part because of fear of angering China.

Rather than allow the government to continue to hold them indefinitely at Guantánamo, US District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the men freed and brought to the US pending any resettlement.

The government had "subverted" diplomatic efforts to relocate the Uighurs, he said, and had engaged in "manipulation" to keep the 17 men behind bars even after they'd been ordered released.

The men have been held at Guantánamo for nearly seven years despite a lack of evidence of any involvement in terrorism. They were sold to the US military by bounty hunters, and Judge Urbina concluded they are not dangerous.

"The Uighurs are not a terrorist organization. They pose no threat to the US government. The US government agrees with that," says New York lawyer Howard Schiffman, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Uyghur American Association, a Washington-based advocacy group.

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