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Holder, GOP Spar Over Fate of Guantanamo Detainees

May 7, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Attorney General Eric Holder sparred with congressional Republicans Thursday over the future of inmates currently being held at Guantanamo Bay. Special correspondent Simon Marks reports on the arguments and focuses on the fate of a group of Muslims from China, known as Uighurs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the political battle over the detainees still being held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Attorney General Eric Holder sparred with Republicans in Congress today over the future of the inmates being held at Guantanamo, as special correspondent Simon Marks reports.

SIMON MARKS: The attorney general was on Capitol Hill this morning testifying at a U.S. Senate hearing on the Justice Department’s budget.

But the talk soon turned to the president’s executive order, signed two days after his inauguration, that mandates the closure of the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Last week, in Europe, the attorney general announced that 30 of the 241 remaining Guantanamo inmates have now been approved for release, seven years after the detention center opened. At its height, it housed more than 625 prisoners.

Today, as the U.S. presses European nations to accept some of the detainees awaiting freedom, Washington is coming under pressure to do the same.

ERIC HOLDER, attorney general: The paramount consideration that we will have is the safety of the American people.

SIMON MARKS: In a contentious exchange with Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the attorney general said the Obama administration has no plans to allow terrorists to walk the streets of the USA.

ERIC HOLDER: A transfer or release of these detainees will only happen in those instances where we are convinced that that can be done in a way that the communities that receive them — overseas, with our allies — will not have any impact on the safety of the place that is receiving — that is receiving them.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, R-Ala.: Excuse me a minute. Excuse me. Are you saying that, one, you believe you have the legal authority to bring terrorists into this country and disperse them around the country in the communities?

ERIC HOLDER: What I’m saying is that, with regard to those who you would describe as terrorists, we would not bring them into this country and release them, anybody who we consider to be a terrorist.

Republicans seek to block transfers

SIMON MARKS: That pledge failed to dissuade the Republicans from launching a bill -- the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act -- that would block the transfer to the U.S. of any Guantanamo inmates, those cleared for freedom and those who may eventually go on trial.

REP. PETER KING, R-N.Y.: A number of these detainees could be brought to the southern district of New York to stand trial, which is literally within walking distance of Ground Zero, it's within walking distance of city hall, within walking distance of the Brooklyn Bridge, police headquarters.

And the thought of having any number of these detainees at Guantanamo, the security provisions that would require, the risk it would create, and, again, being literally in the shadow of Ground Zero, I find not just offensive, but also extremely dangerous.

SIMON MARKS: Caught in the middle of the increasingly intense political battle over Guantanamo's future are 17 detainees who were cleared for release more than four years ago.

Muslims from China's Uyghur community, they claim they could be tortured by Chinese authorities if they're returned to their native Xinjiang province in the north of the country.

Instead, a U.S. district court last year ordered the Uighurs to be resettled here, in Fairfax County in northern Virginia. There's a vibrant Uighur community here, the largest in the country, and 17 local families have offered to take the 17 Guantanamo detainees into their homes.

Uighurs first came here, near Washington, D.C., as students back in the 1980s. Their numbers started to swell amid allegations of Chinese repression during the mid-'90s.

Alim Seytoff of the Uyghur American Association says the detainees pose no threat to the peace and tranquility of northern Virginia.

ALIM SEYTOFF, Uyghur American Association: We do have families here who are ready to help them, take them into their houses. They do have separate bedrooms, I understand, to house them, to provide them food, and to provide them a feeling of they belong to this community.

Also, everything needed in the house, like daily articles they need, things like that. And also provide them any kind of support they need, in terms of locating a job and if they need any kind of other assistance.

Concerns over Uyghur detainees

SIMON MARKS: The Chinese government wants the Uyghur detainees sent home, but both the Bush and Obama administrations have been fearful of the fate that may await the 17 detainees in Xinjiang province, where human rights organizations have claimed the Uighurs' Muslim faith is "under wholesale assault by the state."

But Republicans continue to raise concerns about freeing the Uighurs from Guantanamo, more than four years after their classification as enemy combatants was officially dropped by the government.

In a commentary published earlier this week on the conservative Web site Human Events, the Virginia congressman Frank Wolf wrote, "Information I have received indicates that the 17 Uyghurs being held at Guantanamo may be more dangerous than the public has been led to believe."

That's an allegation an attorney representing six of the Uighur detainees vigorously denies.

SUSAN BAKER MANNING, lawyer for Guantanamo detainees: The perception that these men are somehow terrorists is just flat wrong. They were cleared by the military in 2003, they have been exonerated by the courts, and the Bush administration has conceded that they're not enemy combatants.

These men are not, and they never were terrorists. So any sort of fear that people might have is just based on a misperception, and we hope to correct that perception.

SIMON MARKS: Supporters of the Uyghurs today filed a brief with the Supreme Court, urging it to order their release.

The Justice Department's budget request includes funding for a proposed task force to consider what to do with each of the 241 inmates tonight spending another evening in Guantanamo Bay.