On Thursday, a group of US citizens in Massachusetts were thrilled to hear that in the District Court in Washington, DC, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. had granted the habeas corpus petition of Ravil Mingazov, the last Russian prisoner in Guantánamo, who was seized in Pakistan in March 2002.
Few people in America have heard of Mingazov, but the residents of Amherst and Leverett know about him because, on November 4, 2009 and April 24, 2010, town meetings in both towns passed resolutions offering him a new home – and also offering a new home to Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who was cleared for release in 2007. The resolutions also urged Congress to repeal legislation passed last year, preventing any former Guantánamo prisoner from entering the United States except for prosecution.
The resolutions were proposed by Amherst resident Ruth Hooke and Leverett resident Elizabeth Adams, Both are members of No More Guantánamos, “a coalition of concerned US residents, communities, organizations and attorneys who are working together to ensure justice for the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Bagram air base in Afghanistan and other offshore prison sites maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon around the world.” The organization’s Director, Nancy Talanian, explained that the organization’s chapters around the country “choose one or two detainees and share the men’s stories through events, literature and media to show the public that all Guantánamo detainees are human beings who deserve basic human rights, rather than the monsters that some government officials have described.”
“Our Pioneer Valley chapter chose Ravil Mingazov and Ahmed Belbacha last spring,” she added. “Although Ravil had not yet been cleared, our members were confident that he had done nothing wrong and should be released. We are very happy that the judge agrees.”
What the people of Amherst and Leverett had recognized was that Mingazov was an innocent man, seized as the result of an unfortunate chain of events, whose release from Guantánamo is long overdue. Although his story is unique, it shares similarities with the stories of other refugees who ended up in Guantánamo and also sheds light on the stories of nine other prisoners, still held in the prison. Like Mingazov, their presence in Pakistan in 2002, for reasons unconnected with any kind of militant activity, has doomed them to eight long years in Guantánamo, because the US authorities erroneously concluded that there was a meaningful connection between the house they were staying in when they were seized and the supposed “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah, who was seized on the same night.
Ravil Mingazov, a Refugee From Injustice in Russia
Born in 1967, Mingazov was a ballet dancer, who performed with a number of He dance troupes. When he was 19, he was conscripted into the Russian Army, serving for two years in the Army’s ballet troupe. He then served as a volunteer until 1996, when he took a job in the military’s food supply section, transforming an ailing program into one that was recognized as “the best in all the Army’s.”
Mingazov’s troubles only began when he converted to Islam during his service and discovered that there was widespread intolerance toward Muslim soldiers. When his requests for halal food and prayer time were denied, he took his complaints to his mayor and to a political party, provoking retaliation from his superiors. After the KGB stepped in, ransacking his house, he decided to seek a new country where he could live freely with his wife and his young child.
With his request for a passport denied without explanation, he traveled south to Afghanistan, intending to send for his wife and child once he had located a suitable place for them to live. This could have been Afghanistan, which, before the 9/11 attacks, provided sanctuary to numerous Muslim refugees fleeing religious persecution, but Mingazov’s quest was derailed following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and his story took a dramatic turn for the worse after he fled with other refugees to a center in Lahore, in Pakistan, run by the vast missionary organization Jama’at-al-Tablighi, where he stayed from January to March 2002.
Although Mingazov was safe in the Tablighi center, he was anxious to return to his wife and child, but was prey to the prevailing opportunism regarding foreigners in Pakistan, who were being sold to the US military for bounty payments. It was at this point that he and two other refugees, Labed Ahmed (an Algerian) and Jamil Nassir (a Yemeni) were offered safe passage to a house in Faisalabad, where, they were told, it would be easier for them to leave the country.
Ahmed, a former drug dealer in Europe, who had been imprisoned several times in Germany and Italy, had ended up in Lahore after being recruited to fight with the Taliban and had reached Lahore via a safe house in Bannu, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. He was released from Guantánamo in November 2008, but during his detention he explained that, in Lahore, he had been told to go to Faisalabad, “where some people would come to give him his passport and send him back to Germany.” He added that he and two other people, a Russian (Mingazov) and a Yemeni (Nassir), decided to allow themselves to be taken to Faisalabad, but that, after they arrived, at a place called Shabaz Cottage, they were told that they had been brought there by mistake and would be moved to another house after the evening prayer.
The Tenuous Connection to High-Value Detainee Abu Zubaydah
What none of the men knew at the time was that Shabaz Cottage was being rented by Abu Zubaydah, the former gatekeeper of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan and that the house was under surveillance. As Ahmed explained, however, his only concern was that the house was “big and nice” and “everybody had their own room,” whereas the previous houses he had stayed in had been crowded. As a result, when a vehicle arrived to move the three men elsewhere, Ahmed insisted on staying. He added that, several days later, “The guy from al-Qaeda, Daoud [identified in the hearing as Abu Zubaydah] questioned me as to who I was, what I was doing here and who brought me. I said I’m from Germany waiting on my passport. When I get it, I will leave. He said, no problem, you can stay here for a week. I stayed there for about 12 days and the Pakistani police came. They took us to prison. Daoud was arrested with us, you can ask him about us.”
For Mingazov and Nassir, their relocation was no more successful, because the house they were taken to – the Crescent Mill guest house (also referred to as the “Issa” guest house, after its owner, and “the Yemeni house,” after most of its guests) – was raided on the same night that Zubaydah, Ahmed, and others were seized in a bloody raid on Shabaz Cottage and Mingazov and Nassir were seized along with 13 others, who all ended up in Guantánamo, where one of them – Ali Abdullah Ahmed al-Salami – died in mysterious circumstances in June 2006, allegedly as part of a triple suicide.
Judge Kennedy’s unclassified opinion has not yet been made available, so it is unclear why he approved Mingazov’s release, but it is almost certain that he concluded that Mingazov had no connection to Zubaydah. This should have been clear to the US government for some time, for two particular reasons. The first is that, during a military review board at Guantánamo, Ahmed stated that, because he, Mingazov and Nassir “did not have a connection or relationship with Abu Zubaydah,” they “should have been placed in the Yemeni house.”
This indicates that, although Zubaydah had some sort of contact with the house, it was not a place that had any connection with terrorism and was, at best, a place where a few foreigners fleeing from Afghanistan could be concealed alongside a group of students. Moreover, this analysis was reinforced last May, when Judge Gladys Kessler granted the habeas corpus petition of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni who was also seized in the house. Accepting that Ali Ahmed was a student, and that the government’s supposed evidence relied, to an intolerable degree, on statements made by unreliable witnesses in Guantánamo, Judge Kessler made a point of noting, “It is likely, based on evidence in the record, that at least a majority of the [redacted] guests were indeed students, living at a guest house that was located close to a university.”
Abu Zubaydah and a Global Web of Tortured Confessions
For the rest of the men seized in the Crescent Mill guest house, Judge Kessler’s ruling should have provided encouragement to the government to secure their release, but this has not been the case. In fact, the government hesitated about even releasing Ali Ahmed, explaining, as The New York Times described it last October, that officials had stated, “Even if Mr. Ahmed was not dangerous in 2002 … Guantánamo itself might have radicalized him, exposing him to militants and embittering him against the United States.” With this kind of mentality, no one would ever be released from Guantánamo under any circumstances, and it no doubt helps to explain why only three other survivors of the Crescent Mill raid have been released in the last year: Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee, a Saudi, who was released last June and two other Yemenis, Mohammed Tahir and Fayad Yahya Ahmed, who were released in December.
Beyond highlighting the ongoing plight of the nine remaining men – all Yemenis, apart from one Palestinian – Judge Kennedy’s ruling is also noteworthy because it once more sheds light on the case of Zubaydah. Despite the existence of evidence demonstrating that Zubaydah was nothing more than a mentally damaged training camp facilitator, and that the Khaldan camp had nothing more than a tenuous connection to al-Qaeda, the Bush administration decided that he was, in fact, a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda, and set about interrogating him using an experimental torture program. This was formalized on August 1, 2002, when John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is charged with objectively interpreting the law as it applies to the executive branch, cynically attempted to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA with some sort of legal cover.
Attempts to hold Yoo and Bybee to account for their actions have so far been unsuccessful, but what is even more shocking than the attempt to give legal cover to a torture program supported at the highest levels of the Bush administration is the fact that intelligence assessments of Zubaydah’s significance were so mistaken. As The Washington Post explained last March after talking to “former senior government officials who closely followed [his] interrogations,” the torture of Zubaydah – which included waterboarding (a form of controlled drowning); confinement in tiny, coffin-like boxes; extreme violence; prolonged isolation; and the use of sustained nudity and loud music and noise – was so worthless that “not a single significant plot was foiled” as a result of it. Instead, his false confessions, extracted through the use of torture, led only to a global web of false allegations – implicating men as far afield as Canada and Europe – that has not yet been unraveled and whose scale is, as yet, unknown.
Mingazov and the remaining occupants of the Crescent Mill guest house were not directly implicated in Zubaydah’s torture, as they were seized on the same night as him, but they are victims of the hysteria that greeted and followed his capture. While Zubaydah himself remains in Guantánamo’s secretive Camp 7 for “high-value detainees,” even though there appears to be no way that he can ever be prosecuted, Mingazov may now be more fortunate. Eight years after he made false statements in Bagram about attending an al-Qaeda training camp and listening to a lecture on jihad by Osama bin Laden, which he did because he was fearful of being forcibly returned to Russia, the State Department must now find a new country that is prepared to accept him instead of his home country – and the government will, hopefully, also consider the cases of the men seized with him in Pakistan on that fear-charged night back in March 2002.
Given Congress’ ban on bringing any cleared prisoners to the US mainland, it is doubtful that officials will pay any heed to the offer made by the people of Amherst and Leverett, but this is a great shame. As Nancy Talanian, founder and director of No More Guantánamos, explained on Thursday, “Congress’s blanket ban on allowing any of the men to live here is standing in the way of the prison’s closure, which we believe will make Americans safer. Guantánamo detainees who cannot safely return home are really no different than other refugees whom western Mass. communities have welcomed in the past. And if the US government, which has held the men for more than eight years, claims [they] would not pose any danger if they are sent to live in allied countries, that should be sufficient assurance that we can be safe with some of them living here.”
Logic and compassion, however, are in short supply in a country still bewitched by the Bush administration’s groundless, but enduring, rhetoric about Guantánamo containing “the worst of the worst.” Amherst and Leverett may not succeed in welcoming Mingazov or Belbacha to live in Pioneer Valley, but their example should inspire other US citizens to join the movement to make America accountable for its own mistakes and to call on Congress to allow other wrongly imprisoned men to settle in the United States.