On March 1, 2004, a plane arrived in Moscow that had left the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay the day before. Onboard were seven Russian nationals who had spent the two previous years at the US prison in Guantánamo Bay; an eighth Russian prisoner remains there to this day.
The journey home should have been a new beginning and the end of their ordeal. Instead, the seven men were charged and jailed upon return. They were released in June that year due to a lack of evidence. Although all were arrested in Afghanistan, there is no proof that any of them had fought there. Upon arrival at Guantánamo, the men were found to have no “further intelligence value to the US” and were cleared for release by the end of 2002. They were returned to Russia on the basis of diplomatic assurances that the men would not face further abuse.
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Nonetheless, having suffered torture and abuse in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo, one of the former prisoners told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that “the Russians were worse.”
For another former Guantánamo prisoner, 36-year old Rasul Kudaev, the past decade has seen him become a defendant in Russia’s longest-running criminal trial, a victim of further torture and currently facing a life sentence in prison. He has been detained for almost the past 9 years. According to HRW, “Rasul Kudaev presents the strongest case of mistreatment in Russian detention [of a Guantánamo returnee],” and possibly the worst post-release abuse of any former Guantánamo prisoner.
While jailed upon his return to Russia, he was threatened by the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) that he would not be left alone. Later, after his release, he stated that he was afraid of being kidnapped and killed and did not go out alone in the evenings. On August 15, 2005, he was abducted from his home and interrogated by unidentified security officers.
The worst form of abuse he faced perhaps was to be denied identity documents in early October 2005, documents that would afford him access to medical care in hospital. Kudaev had returned home unable to walk and in severe pain due to a bullet lodged in his right pelvis after being shot in Afghanistan in 2001. He also suffered from hepatitis, high blood pressure and other illnesses. Without these documents, he was often refused treatment.
Weeks later, worse was to come. Rasul Kudaev lived in a village outside Nalchik, the regional capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) in the troubled North Caucasus region. On October 13, 2005, large groups of armed men attacked military and police installations across Nalchik, attacks in which over 150 people, mainly militants, are reported to have died. On October 23, 2005, Kudaev was arrested at his home in a police sweep of over 2,000 people. He was brought before the Nalchik court on October 25 and charged with a number of terrorism-related offenses; he had been severely beaten. He could barely walk or stand up straight. Kudaev was almost unrecognizable due to the swelling and bruising of his face.
The authorities have refused to investigate. Kudaev claims he was forced to sign a confession, admitting to the charges against him under duress of torture. He asserts that he was at home at the time of the attacks, as he was most days, due to his poor health and limited mobility. Witnesses have corroborated this. This confession provides the only evidence against him. He successfully filed a pending claim against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights for torture, to which another successful claim was added in 2011 for further abuses. His medical condition has remained a concern throughout.
The Nalchik case is the longest-running in modern Russian history, with a record number of 58 defendants, who along with Kudaev have been held at the Nalchik pretrial detention center since October 2005; the cramped and crowded conditions of such facilities in Russia, as well as extended detention in them, have been the subject of ongoing criticism. Lawyers in the case have been harassed too and have received death threats.
The trial itself only started in 2009 and has progressed slowly. In September 2013, the prosecution asked for Kudaev to be given a life sentence. The proceedings closed in January, and the court is expected to deliver its verdict in June this year. Some of the defendants have pleaded guilty to their role in the attacks, but most, like Kudaev, maintain their innocence and have retracted their confessions, which they claim were obtained through torture.
Members of a local militant group who signed statements implicating Kudaev in the attacks later withdrew them, claiming they had been forced to make them under duress of torture. A statement given by a leader of the local militant group, the KBR Jamaat, suggests there was a case of mistaken identity, with another man called Rasul Kudaev being an actual member of the group: the witness stated that the Rasul Kudaev who had been held in Guantánamo had nothing to do with the militant group: “They are trying to name him as one of us to accuse us of international terrorism.”
Since his arrest and in his defense, the question has been raised many times as to why Rasul Kudaev has been implicated in the attacks: He has an alibi, does not have the physical capacity to commit such acts, and the only evidence against him appears to be a confession that was beaten out of him and others. His lawyer Mogamed Gagiev stated, “It appears that somebody is desperate to lend an international character to the event in Nalchik.”
Kudaev described his time in Guantánamo Bay as being held in a “concentration camp,” yet he remains a prisoner and has provided an expedient scapegoat for the dubious policies of both the United States and Russia. The US administration has used Kudaev’s detention in Russia as proof of the recidivism of released Guantánamo prisoners. According to HRW, “Kudaev’s case doesn’t prove that ex-Guantanamo detainees are likely to return to terrorism. It proves that they should not be sent home to countries that routinely use torture.”
For the Russians, implicating Kudaev, who had been held prisoner in Afghanistan and the United States, lent some credibility to its heavy-handed response to domestic terrorism, long preceding the current climate of the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Kudaev was told more than once that prison officials could do whatever they wanted to him as he had been held at Guantánamo Bay. The Russian human rights NGO, Memorial, has classed him a “political prisoner.”
While Russia criticizes the continuing existence of Guantánamo Bay, Gagiev summed up a former prisoner’s case, “The whole world, particularly the Russian Federation, through its politicians, state officials and public figures, has recently condemned the atrocities at Guantánamo. But how are our pretrial detention centers any better? No civil society will ever be built in our country until the law is the same for everyone, including state officials and law-enforcement officers.” This applies equally to both states and addresses a fundamental legal flaw in US and Russian responses to security threats. This flawed logic has seen Rasul Kudaev spend almost the whole of this millennium as a prisoner and hostage to the political expediency of different states.