Uighur case recalls Cold War dispute with St. Louis tie
Last week, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ordered the release of the 17 Uighurs, who have been held for seven years at the Guantanamo Bay prison. The judge ruled that the government no longer had a right to hold the men, having abandoned the claim that they are enemy combatants. The judge's order has been stayed by the appeals court in Washington, D.C. to give the government more time to make its case. (Scotusblog has a good summary and background information here .)
The government's argument is based on a 1953 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Mezei case where a 5-4 majority ruled that the courts could not interfere with the attorney general's decision to stop the entrance of a person at the nation's borders. The only recourse lay with Congress, not the courts, the courts said. Judge Urbina wrote that subsequent decisions had undercut Mezei, but the government argues he was not at liberty to set aside the precedent.
Mezei, born in Hungary, had lived in Buffalo from 1923 to 1948. During that time he married an American citizen, sold war bonds and served as an air warden during World War II. In 1948 he left the country to try to visit his dying mother in Romania. When he tried to get back into the country at Ellis Island, he was stopped and locked up. The government claimed that his membership in the International Workers of the World party had involved him in communist activities.
Irving Dilliard, the Post-Dispatch's famous editorial editor, waged an editorial crusade against the detention of Mezei and Ellen Knauff, a German woman who was detained at Ellis Island when she arrived in the United States to apply for admission as a war bride. Dilliard wrote 15 editorials on behalf of Knauff, who eventually won the support of Congress. In an editorial titled, The Story of Ignatz Mezei, on Apr. 5, 1953, he questioned "[h]ow . . . anyone [can] know these facts and not worry about what they may foretell for our country". (Here is a more detailed history of the cases.)
When the Uighurs were captured near Tora Bora, they fell into the kind of legal limbo that kept Mezei and Knauff on Ellis Island for years. They were in Afghanistan receiving weapons training during the Taliban era. The Uighurs are a Muslim minority in China, which is viewed as a separatist and terrorist movement by the Chinese. (See Human Rights report on Chinese repression.)
At first the Bush administration maintained that the Uighurs were enemy combatants, but it later agreed that they were not. After the recent Supreme Court decision recognizing habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees, the Uighurs sought their freedom. Judge Urbina ordered the men released into the United States, rejecting the government's claim that the courts should defer to the president.
Judge Urbina wrote, "There comes a time when delayed action prompted by judicial deference to the executive branch's function yields inaction not consistent with the constitutional imperative. Such a time has come in the case of the 17 Uighurs in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba whom the government has detained for 7 years without an opportunity for judicial redress until recently."
The government claimed that it had "wind-up" authority to end the detention of the Uighurs. The administration has been trying unsuccessfully for years to persuade other nations to take the Uighurs, but other countries have refused because they didn't want to alienate China. Lawyers for the Uighurs said that any "wind-up" authority is "used up" after five years.
In its appeals, the government argues that even though it no longer considers the Uighurs enemy combatants, it still thinks that release into the United States would be dangerous.
The New York Times criticized the Bush administration's handling of the case in an editorial on Saturday. The case could end up in the Supreme Court.