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By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court said on Tuesday it would hear an appeal by Chinese Muslim prisoners held for years at Guantanamo Bay who argue that they should be released in the United States.
The nation's highest court agreed to decide whether federal judges in Washington have the power to order the government to release Guantanamo prisoners into the United States when no other country will take them.
A U.S. appeals court ruled only the executive branch can make immigration decisions about bringing members of the Uighur ethnic group into the United States. The case set a precedent for other detainees at Guantanamo, a prison at the U.S. Navy base on Cuba.
The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case was a setback for the Obama administration, which had opposed the appeal and had urged the justices to reject it.
The appeals court overturned a ruling by a federal judge a year ago that 17 Uighurs held at Guantanamo since 2002 should be immediately released into the United States. U.S. authorities say the Uighurs are no longer terrorism suspects.
The U.S. government has said it cannot return the Uighurs to China because they would face persecution and has searched for more than a year for any nation willing to accept them.
In June, the U.S. government sent four of the Uighurs to Bermuda. U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan told the Supreme Court in September that the Pacific island nation of Palau had agreed to take 12 of the 13 remaining Uighurs.
She said six Uighurs have agreed to be resettled in Palau, and two more may soon agree to go. She said the U.S. government was trying to find an appropriate place to send the others.
President Barack Obama has ordered that Guantanamo prison be closed by January 22, but administration officials said the deadline probably will not be met.
The Supreme Court case could complicate the efforts to close the Guantanamo prison, which now holds about 220 detainees who had been picked up as foreign terrorism suspects after the September 11 attacks.
UPROAR IN CONGRESS
Early this year, the Obama administration said it was considering freeing the Uighurs in the United States, but a political firestorm erupted, with many members of Congress opposing such a transfer.
The U.S. Senate voted on Tuesday to allow Guantanamo prisoners into the United States only to face trial. The House of Representatives approved the measure earlier and it next goes to the White House for Obama to sign into law.
Attorneys for the Uighurs, supported by civil liberties groups, appealed to the Supreme Court and said the case presented important questions.
They said the Supreme Court's ruling last year that gave Guantanamo detainees the long-standing habeas corpus right to challenge their imprisonment would be rendered meaningless if judges could not order their release.
The attorneys welcomed the involvement of the high court.
"We hope this will result in a ruling that confirms that the writ of habeas corpus guarantees to the innocent not just a judge's learned essay but something meaningful - his release," said Sabin Willett, the lead attorney for the Uighurs.
Obama administration attorneys said the appeals court correctly ruled the Uighurs have no constitutional right to be released in the United States.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case early next year. Any decision would likely come by late June.
The nine-member court has been closely divided between conservative and liberal factions in Guantanamo cases, with Justice Anthony Kennedy in the last ruling casting the decisive vote that the prisoners have certain legal rights, including the ability to challenge their confinement.
(Editing by David Alexander and David Storey)