United Nations human rights special rapporteurs expressed serious concerns on July 2 about the “the imminent forced repatriation of former Guantánamo detainee Ravil Mingazov from the United Arab Emirates [UAE] to Russia, saying he faced substantial risk of torture and ill-treatment upon his return.”
One of the last prisoners to be released the day before Obama’s presidency ended in 2017, and one of 23 prisoners transferred to the UAE, Mingazov is one of 19 former prisoners who remain there, along with 18 Yemenis. In a July 2020 letter to the UAE government, which has received no response, the experts expressed concerns about the safety of the former prisoners and their conditions, as they remain in detention and largely without access to family, lawyers and independent medical care — in some cases, over six years after their transfer — and the secret terms of the assurances given to the U.S. in the resettlement agreement.
These concerns were followed in October 2020 by calls to halt the potential forced and unlawful repatriation of the 18 Yemenis. As concerns these men, the experts stated, “While we welcome the Government’s decision not to repatriate these Yemeni nationals we continue to be gravely concerned at their indefinite detention at an undisclosed location, without charge or trial, with extremely restricted family contact, no legal representation and recurrent periods of prolonged solitary confinement.”
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On the other hand, the experts are now concerned that “Mr. Mingazov has been subjected to continuous arbitrary detention at an undisclosed location in the UAE, which amounts to enforced disappearance [… and] risks being forcibly repatriated to Russia despite the reported risk of torture and arbitrary detention based on his religious beliefs.”
In recent weeks, the Russian authorities have visited his family home in preparation for his repatriation. The experts have said, “Any repatriation process happening without full respect for procedural guarantees, including an individualized risk assessment, would violate the absolute prohibition of refoulement.” His family have not received any official information about his planned repatriation.
One of eight Russian nationals held at Guantánamo, Mingazov was the only one not to be returned to the Russian Federation in 2004. Like the others, he had fled religious persecution in his homeland and insisted he should not be returned there. The seven men who were made to return in 2004 have faced ongoing persecution, arbitrary detention, torture, spurious charges and one was shot dead by security officers in the street in 2007.
Although in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked the U.S. for the continuing human rights abuses and lawlessness at Guantánamo, the risk of torture, persecution and forced repatriation to Russia remains quite real. In February, the European Court of Human Rights found the Russian authorities guilty of torture, forced confessions and unfair convictions in the cases of a number of Muslim men from the North Caucasus. In April, a number of human rights organizations condemned France following the forced deportation of a Chechen asylum seeker, a victim of torture and a witness in a torture investigation against the Chechen authorities, in contravention of a court order and international law, to Russia, where he was abducted two days after his deportation, and where he remains “at high risk of torture.”
Mingazov’s situation means he is essentially in the same position in which he found himself in 2016 when the periodic review board at Guantánamo Bay cleared him for release to the UAE: between a rock and a hard place. He has simply moved from indefinite arbitrary detention at the hands of the U.S. to detention for the past four years at the hands of the UAE sanctioned by the U.S. The threat of repatriation to the Russian Federation has long been there too.
In 2016, however, Mingazov had one other potential option. His ex-wife and teenage son are refugees in the United Kingdom. His lawyers applied for him to join them but this was turned down by the close U.S. ally. In a question in parliament by MP Tom Brake days before Mingazov was sent to the UAE, the British government, while refusing to comment on any asylum claim, admitted that, “The Government received a request from the U.S. Government to allow the transfer of Ravil Mingazov from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to the UK. After careful consideration, the Government declined this request.” Since the U.S. could not rely on allies who claim to uphold human rights, men like Ravil Mingazov, who were never charged or tried at Guantánamo, found themselves “resettled” in further uncertainty and sometimes persecution in third states.
Along with the death in March 2021 of former Tunisian prisoner, Lotfi Ben Ali, who was released in 2014 to Kazakhstan, which later expelled him, and who died in Mauritania suffering from multiple medical problems, Mingazov’s case raises important questions for the Biden administration’s stance on Guantánamo.
Typically, the U.S. has chosen to wash its hands of prisoners once they are transferred, even though it continues to enforce close surveillance of them, regardless of the conditions — arbitrary detention, harassment by the authorities, poverty, homelessness — that they may find themselves in. Nonetheless, as survivors of torture, the men have a right to rehabilitation.
In Mingazov’s case, the Biden administration must take immediate action to remedy what has been almost two decades of torture and indefinite arbitrary detention by intervening and ensuring that he is not subject to forced repatriation to the Russian Federation, and if he cannot live in freedom and humane conditions in the UAE, to ensure his transfer to a country where he can.
There has been much optimism over the Biden administration and its reported stance on Guantánamo. Yet, amid calls to reinstate the measures once used by the man to whom he served as vice president, there must be consideration of the consequences of Obama’s tactics, of which both these men, who were transferred by his administration, are victims. Many of the 197 prisoners Obama resettled in third states were often also transferred under dubious trade and diplomatic arrangements and with questionable assurances given by states in return.
Almost 20 years on, although 40 prisoners remain at Guantánamo, after a peak of almost 800, the impact of Guantánamo detention on the individuals and communities affected is seldom taken into consideration unless it can be used as an excuse for further belligerence, extralegal detention elsewhere or to justify further human rights abuses by the U.S. and its allies.