WASHINGTON - The Bush administration argued yesterday that when Congress authorized military action against the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists, it also gave the president the power to detain people who never took up arms against the United States.
The Justice Department took that position as it defended the six-year detention of Huzaifa Parhat, a Chinese Muslim known as an Uighur. He was captured in Afghanistan but says he considers China, not the United States, the enemy.
Parhat is one of several Uighurs being held as suspected terrorists at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Their case has become a diplomatic and legal headache for the United States, which has tried to find a country willing to accept the Uighurs even as it defended its decision to hold them as enemy combatants.
Yesterday, Parhat became the first person to challenge that label. His lawyers say the government hasn't even met its own relatively low standard for holding him as an enemy combatant.
The Justice Department acknowledges that Parhat never fought against the United States and says it has no evidence he planned to do so. Yet government lawyers contend he can be held under the law authorizing military force against anyone who "planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks" of 2001.
The case hinges on Parhat's connection to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, a militant group that demands separation from China. The United States named it a terrorist group in 2002, a move that some international affairs analysts say was made to appease China and ensure it would not oppose the invasion of Iraq.
"Lots of people go on China's terrorism list. Just ask the Dalai Lama," lawyer P. Sabin Willett told the court. "Congress never authorized war against this group."
The military says Parhat trained in an ETIM camp to prepare to fight China. The Chinese government blames the separatist group for hundreds of attacks, while human rights groups say Beijing represses religious freedom and uses antiterrorism laws to crack down on legitimate protests.
Gregory G. Katsas, a Justice Department lawyer, told a three-judge panel that the United States has classified intelligence that ETIM is affiliated with Al Qaeda, though officials did not identify the source of that intelligence either to the judges or to the military reviewers. China has made similar assertions but has offered no evidence.
The United States acknowledges that it has no evidence that Parhat joined that group. His affiliation alone, the military said, justified his detention as an enemy combatant. Judge Thomas B. Griffith questioned that logic. He said the law explicitly says there must be a connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Katsas said Congress never intended to authorize force only against terrorists involved with the Sept. 11 attacks or against "Al Qaeda in some rigid, formalistic sense."
"The question is, 'What is Al Qaeda?' " Katsas said, adding that if the military determines ETIM and Al Qaeda are affiliated, the courts should defer to that judgment.
If the court agrees he is not an enemy combatant, Parhat's lawyers want him released into the United States. But the judges questioned whether they had the authority to order that, given that Parhat has never entered the country. The United States is concerned that he will be tortured or killed if returned to China, but the court can't order another country to take him.
"The Uighurs are a difficult problem," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in 2004. "The Uighurs are not going back to China, but finding places for them is not a simple matter. But we are trying to find places for them."
Judge Merrick B. Garland suggested yesterday that the Bush administration could resolve the situation the same way it did in 2006, when, faced with a court order that some Uighurs were being held illegally, it arranged for five detainees to be sent to Albania.