The stigma attached to detention at Guantánamo Bay — a site of torture and the denial of due process rights — has led other countries across the world to believe they have carte blanche to continue to treat former prisoners outside of the confines of the law.
For instance, the treatment of former Guantánamo prisoner Rasul Kudaev has become the perfect example of human rights abuses and the disproportionate response by the Russian authorities to the ongoing terrorist threat in the volatile North Caucasus region since his release to Russia in March 2004. In 2014, the Russian human rights nongovernmental organization Memorial described Kudaev as a political prisoner who was being prosecuted to create a foreign link to Islamic militants in the North Caucasus.
In October 2005, Kudaev was one of thousands taken in for questioning following a series of attacks by armed militants on Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic in the North Caucasus, in which around 150 people died. Kudaev, one of 59 men who were later charged, was accused of leading an attack on a police station that killed one person in his village, Khasanya.
Kudaev claims that he was tortured into signing a confession prepared for him, naming him as one of the ringleaders of the attacks. At trial, his lawyers argued the evidence against him was obtained through the torture of co-defendants, some of whom later retracted their confessions and admitted they did not know him. Kudaev currently has a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights against Russia for the torture he suffered after being arrested. Another 11 prisoners have brought similar claims.
The judgment, which found all of the defendants guilty in December 2014 following a lengthy trial, was slammed by human rights organizations: Amnesty International called it 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.” Kudaev was one of five men given a life sentence.
The attacks were imputed to various militias in the region, including Chechens. However, these attacks were rather poorly prepared and executed in comparison to others: Mainly militants died. Because Kudaev had been a prisoner in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo, prosecutors sought to exploit his situation and make the attacks by local militias look like “an act of international terrorism.” The militias denied knowing him or that he was involved. The prosecution was unable to provide concrete evidence of such links but pressed for the harshest sentence nonetheless.
Appeals were accepted by 49 of those found guilty, and three judges from the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow traveled to Nalchik to hear the case in December 2015. As the trial proceedings worked their way toward the appeal, Kudaev’s mother described the case as being a farce: “The courts seem to be following political orders.”
Kudaev’s appeal was heard on January 14, 2016. The judges considered each appeal at length. Kudaev maintained his innocence — that he had no involvement in the attacks or links to militants. Kudaev stated that he was at a funeral and too unwell since his return from Guantánamo to take part in any attacks. Ten local residents confirmed his alibi but the court rejected their evidence.
At the original trial, Kudaev was banned from the courtroom in 2013, along with other defendants, and thus unable to make his own submissions. This time, he was able to address the court. He said he was given a life sentence only because he had been imprisoned in Afghanistan by the Taliban and by the United States at Guantánamo, and the court had convicted him on the basis of evidence obtained through the use of torture. While admitting such evidence, the court rejected phone logs that proved his whereabouts on the day in question.
Following his court statements, Oleg Orlov from Memorial told the press, “He has a rather good alibi, and his rights were breached by the fact that the court did not examine all the witnesses his defense requested…. Other than his false incrimination by others, most of whom disavowed their statements as having been made under torture, there is no evidence of his guilt.”
In 2001, Kudaev was imprisoned by the Taliban as he traveled through Afghanistan to Pakistan. The Taliban deemed him a Russian spy. Later held by the Northern Alliance, he sustained a bullet wound to his hip in the notorious battle at Qala-i-Jangi in November 2001, which has never been treated, and as a result, has left him crippled. Like 86 percent of Guantánamo prisoners, his capture by the US military involved being sold for a bounty. The US military decided he was an Uzbek militant. Legally admissible evidence was not considered necessary then, just as it is not now. The stigma of Guantánamo is proof enough. In addition, it helped to escalate the political and international dimensions of a domestic terrorist attack and attempts to justify a heavy-handed response.
Kudaev claims that the US tortured him at both Kandahar and Guantánamo. In addition to his 2005 claim at the European Court of Human Rights, another torture claim against Russia was accepted in 2011 following abuse by guards at the pretrial detention center he and his co-defendants have been held in since their arrest. The poor conditions of detention have seen the physical health of Kudaev and others deteriorate severely. In the interim period between the judgment and appeal, one of the defendants died in prison following a hunger strike to protest a lack of appropriate medical care.
Due to his status as a star defendant as a former Guantánamo prisoner, Kudaev has also been singled out for particularly bad treatment: He has been held in solitary confinement frequently, been denied necessary medicines and items from his family, and been beaten by guards. Inadequate medical treatment has exacerbated the various ailments he contracted while in Afghan and US detention. Amnesty International has intervened on several occasions to demand the medical treatment he needs.
On January 28, 2016, however, the judges made their decision, reducing the sentences of most of the appellants very slightly but not mitigating any of the five life sentences. Although the prosecution recommended the prisoners be transferred to penal colonies to serve their sentences immediately, no one has yet been moved. There are also further avenues of appeal available to all of the men, but the chances of success are unlikely.
Concerning the admission of torture evidence in the case of Rasul Kudaev and others, Rustam Matsev, a lawyer with the nongovernmental organization Russian Justice Initiative, said, “The Russian authorities have once again failed to ensure an investigation of facts that, at the very least, indicate that 12 of those convicted in the case of the attack on Nalchik on October 13, 2005, were subjected to torture and that confessions obtained through these means were used as evidence in court.” At least one of the men serving a life sentence has already stated that he will appeal further.
Twelve years since his release, Guantánamo continues to have a profound effect on the life and liberty of Rasul Kudaev. He has been denied the opportunity to be rehabilitated physically and mentally and to resume a normal life. The possible closure of Guantánamo is unlikely to herald an improvement for Kudaev or other former prisoners who find themselves in a similar position. The stigma of Guantánamo, and of torture, is for life.