(CN) - The D.C. Circuit on Wednesday overturned a federal judge's order to transfer 17 Turkic Muslim detainees from Guantanamo and free them in the United States. The three-judge panel cited "settled law" that gives only political branches - and not the judicial branch - authority to bring foreigners into the country.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled last October that 17 of the 22 Turkic Muslims, known as Uighurs, being held at Guantanamo were no longer "enemy combatants." He ordered the government to release the men in the United States, because they faced torture in China, where they previously lived.
The Uighurs claimed that local tribesmen had turned them in to Pakistani authorities in exchange for the U.S.-offered bounty of $5,000 each.
Judge Urbina acknowledged that political branches historically hold the power to admit foreigners into the country, but concluded that the "exceptional" circumstances of the case and the need to protect "an individual's liberty from unbridled executive fiat" justified his release order.
A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit stayed the order in October, saying the Bush administration failed to prove that the Uighurs had broken any laws or were "unlawful enemy combatants."
After considering briefs from both sides, the court reaffirmed the exclusive power of the political branches "to decide which aliens may, and which aliens may not, enter the United States, and on what terms."
"The critical question is: what law 'expressly authorized' the district court to set aside the decision of the Executive Branch and to order these aliens brought to the United States and released in Washington, D.C.?" Judge Randolph asked.
"The district court cited no statute or treaty authorizing its order, and we are aware of none," the judge answered.
The court also rejected the notion that the detainees were entitled to be freed in the United States.
"An undercurrent of petitioners' argument is that they deserve to be released into this country after all they have endured at the hands of the United States," the ruling states. "But such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches."
Judge Judith Rogers filed a concurring opinion, but said she "cannot join the court's analysis," because it isn't faithful to the Supreme Court's finding in Boumediene v. Bush, which established detainees' right to challenge their detentions.
"[T]he court nevertheless appears to conclude that a habeas court lacks authority to order that a non-'enemy combatant' alien be released into the country when the Executive can point to no legal justification for detention and to no foreseeable path of release," Rogers wrote.
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