On December 23, 2014, the longest-running criminal trial in modern Russian history, with the largest number of defendants in a single trial, came to an end when all 58 defendants were found guilty. In a show trial worthy of Stalin, five of the defendants were given life sentences, including former Guantánamo Bay prisoner, 36-year old Rasul Kudaev.
Kudaev was held at Guantánamo Bay for over two years, where he was quickly deemed to have “no further intelligence value to the United States.” He was released in 2004 without charge or trial.
He claims to have been tortured by the US military at both Kandahar in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. By the time he returned home, he was suffering from hepatitis, ulcers, bronchitis and other illnesses. In addition, a wound he sustained as a prisoner in Afghanistan from a bullet, which remains lodged in his hip, was not seen to, and he returned home barely able to walk.
Back home, the fact that he had been held at Guantánamo Bay would make him a convenient scapegoat for the Russian authorities’ human rights violations and heavy-handed counter-terrorism measures in the volatile North Caucasus region where he lives.
On October 13, 2005, armed men carried out a series of coordinated attacks in the city of Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), killing more than 150 people and injuring 100. Living in a village just outside the city, Kudaev was arrested in a sweep of over 2,000 people in the days following the attacks.
Kudaev was beaten and tortured into signing a confession written for him. On October 25, 2005, he was charged with a series of offenses, including murder and endangering the life of a law enforcement officer, on the basis of his forced confession and that of his codefendants. They too had been tortured into making confessions that incriminated themselves and others. Images of the torture they sustained circulated on the internet and caused a scandal, but led to no prosecutions.
“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.”
Kudaev had a credible alibi: His health prevented him from leaving home and required regular medical attention. Witnesses were able to vouch for his activities throughout the day. The militants who carried out the attacks denied any relation to him: “They are trying to name him as one of us to accuse us of international terrorism.” At trial, his codefendants retracted their confessions implicating him, stating they had been tortured into naming him as a leader of the attacks; some admitted to not knowing him. The “evidence” hinged solely on confessions obtained through the use of torture.
The allegations of torture by the defendants have been proven. Rasul Kudaev brought a case in 2006 that has been admitted by the European Court of Human Rights for violations of the prohibition on torture by Russia. He added a further torture claim to it in 2011, after he was abused by prison guards. The ruling is pending.
The United States was fully aware of what lay ahead for Kudaev and the six other Russian nationals held at Guantánamo, who returned to the country in March 2004. Their return was negotiated on the basis of diplomatic assurances that the men would not be mistreated. Such assurances are nonbinding. Russia, like the United States, is also bound not to torture as a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture and other international instruments.
The United States thus returned the men in breach of its own international law obligations under the principle of non-refoulement – the idea that no refugee should be returned to any country where he or she is likely to face persecution or torture. Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), by branding the men “terrorist suspects,” “the US government certainly rendered them more vulnerable targets for Russian abuse.”
The Russian government used this label to full effect with all the men, not just Kudaev, to justify its own repressive measures in the name of fighting the “international war on terror,” much as the United States does. While criticizing the United States over Guantánamo, Russia’s own treatment of men like Kudaev leaves much to be desired.
The United States, however, is no innocent party to his post-release abuse. In 2009, a Pentagon report used Kudaev’s torture confession and Russian imprisonment as an example of “recidivism” among former Guantánamo prisoners. HRW retorted: “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.”
A 2009 diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks later demonstrated the sheer hypocrisy: The United States raised his case with Russia following pressure from NGOs. The Russian Foreign Ministry representative asked if the United States opposed the Russian government putting Kudaev on trial; the response was simply, “We reinforced the need for a fair and transparent legal process and again stressed our concern over Kudaev’s treatment during three years of pretrial detention.” The pot was reluctant to call the kettle black.
In this show trial, American-style, plea-bargaining tactics were tried for the first time in Russia. Changes were also made, retrospectively, to Russian criminal law to restrict jury trials in such cases, leaving the decision entirely to a panel of judges.
The show trial nature of the case is probably best demonstrated by the fact that although all the defendants were found guilty, the charge of murder was dropped against all of them, in a case that ultimately pivoted on who was responsible for the murder of over 150 people.
Sentences of four years to life were given to the defendants. Three were released from the court having served their sentence in pretrial detention. Nonetheless, lawyers for all the defendants plan to appeal. Most remain at the Nalchik pretrial detention center, where they have been held for the past 9 years, with prisoners such as Kudaev, who have been given life sentences, placed in solitary confinement.
Amnesty International called the sentence a “textbook case of criminal injustice” and Kudaev’s case “a stark illustration of the unfair trial that the defendants in this case have been subjected to. It exposes the deplorable state of the Russian criminal justice system and the impunity of law enforcement officials alleged to have committed severe human rights violations.”
Referring to the Kudaev’s initial case, the Russian human rights NGO Memorial stated, “The charges were built solely on a false confession and on incriminating evidence obtained coercively. The court delivered the verdict the prosecution was demanding – a life sentence for Rasul Kudaev.”
Kudaev’s case exemplifies how the stamp of Guantánamo can continue to blight an innocent man’s life more than a decade after his release and how, to create a false sense of terror to justify illegal actions, states destroy lives with impunity all over the world. Rasul Kudaev has spent almost all of this century behind bars without a shred of substantive evidence against him. His torturers in Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and Russia, on the other hand, remain at large.