In a landmark decision, a U.S. federal judge has ordered that a group of Chinese Muslims being held at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, be released into the United States.

The Bush administration had argued the judge did not have the authority to release the 17 Uighur detainees into the United States but that they also could not be returned to China where they are still considered terrorists and may be tortured.

The men, who are no longer considered enemy combatants by the U.S. administration, have been held at the naval prison for almost seven years. They were taken into custody in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said it would be wrong for the Bush administration to continue holding the detainees who have been cleared for release since 2004.

Efforts to find a home for the detainees outside the United States have been complicated by fears in many countries of diplomatic reprisals by the Chinese government, which has demanded the men be repatriated to China.

In 2006, Albania gave refuge to five Uighurs from Guantanamo amid Chinese protests.

Bush administration lawyers argued Tuesday that Urbina did not have the authority to order the Uighurs released into the United States, where a Chinese Muslim association in Virginia has agreed to help the men find work and housing.

"Today's ruling presents serious national security and separation-of-powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues," said U.S. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

"Although the United States no longer treats these Uighurs as 'enemy combatants' of the United States and has been seeking to transfer them out of Guantanamo Bay … the government does not believe that it is appropriate to have these foreign nationals removed from government custody and released into the United States."

Detention called unlawful

But Urbina called the continuing detention unlawful and said the U.S. constitution prohibits indefinite imprisonment without charges.

Lawyers for the detainees said Urbina's ruling marks the first time a federal court has ordered the release of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay into the United States.

It is unclear when the men will be released into the United States. Urbina has ordered the men be brought to the court for a hearing on Friday to decide where they should be permanently settled.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Chinese government continued to demand that the Uighurs, who are from an ethnic minority group in Xinjiang, be placed in Chinese custody.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the Uighurs are suspected of being members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization.

"China has urged the U.S. to repatriate these Chinese terrorist suspects to China on many occasions," Gang said. "We hope the U.S. will take our position seriously and repatriate these persons to China sooner rather than later."

China has argued insurgent Uighurs are leading an Islamist separatist movement in Xinjiang.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington has not yet commented on Urbina's order that the men be released on to American soil.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters