WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the Bush administration to release 17 detainees at Guantanamo by the end of the week, the first such ruling in nearly seven years of legal disputes over the administration's detention policies.
The judge, Ricardo M. Urbina of U.S. District Court, ordered that the 17 men be brought to his courtroom Friday from Guantanamo, where they have been held since 2002. He indicated that he would release the men, members of the restive Uighur Muslim minority in western China, into the care of supporters in the United States, initially in the Washington area.
"I think the moment has arrived for the court to shine the light of constitutionality on the reasons for detention," Urbina said.
Saying that the men had never fought the United States and were not a security threat, he rejected Bush administration claims that he lacked the power to order the men set free in the United States and government requests that he stay his order to permit an immediate appeal.
The ruling was a setback for the administration, which has waged a legal battle to defend its policies of detention at Guantanamo.
The government recently conceded that it would no longer try to prove that the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurz) were enemy combatants, the classification it uses to detain people at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp, where 255 men are now held. But it has fought efforts by lawyers for the men to have them released into the United States, saying the Uighurs admitted to receiving weapons training in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration was "deeply concerned by, and strongly disagrees with" the decision.
Justice Department lawyers said they were filing an emergency application Tuesday night for a stay from the federal appeals court in Washington.
Urbina's decision came in a habeas corpus suit authorized by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June that gave detainees the right to have federal judges review the reason for their detention.
The Uighurs have long been at the center of contentious legal cases because they said were swept into detention in Afghanistan in 2001 by mistake. They said they were in Afghanistan to seek refuge from China.