While Donald Trump’s dealings with Russia have triggered a political scandal, the mainstream media continue to maintain silence on a foreign policy area that Trump’s predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, long colluded on with the Russian government: Guantánamo Bay.
The Modern Gulag
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Eight Russian nationals were held at Guantánamo Bay. All were released without charge or trial. Seven of the men were returned to Russia in March 2004, after being quickly deemed to have no useful intelligence to offer or links to terrorist organizations.
All of the men had fled persecution before being arrested or sold to the US military in Pakistan or Afghanistan in 2001-2002. Previous experience of torture and arbitrary detention in Russia had led some to flee over the border to Afghanistan. For some, this led to further detention by the Taliban, who took them for Russian spies.
Some of the men told the US military they had fled to Afghanistan for “religious freedom reasons.” However, unlike another persecuted Muslim minority held at Guantánamo, the Uighurs from China, the men were not considered refugees fleeing persecution. Desperate pleas from themselves and their families that they should either remain at Guantánamo or be sent to any country other than Russia fell on deaf ears.
The United States knew exactly what would happen if the men were returned home. The risk was so severe that the US returned them on the basis of diplomatic assurances that Russia — a state known for its widespread use of torture in spite of being a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture — would not torture them.
The US violated these prisoners’ human rights not only by detaining them arbitrarily and abusing them for over two years in most cases, but also by returning them to Russia in breach of the principle of non-refoulement, which says that refugees should not be returned to states where they are at risk of persecution.
The men were detained and charged upon their arrival in Moscow on March 1, 2004. On the same day, the judicial authorities issued a statement: “All these people were recruited by representatives of radical Islamic organizations and later sent over to Afghanistan, where they fought on the side of the Taliban.” That this statement was simply untrue was irrelevant: the men were returning from Guantánamo Bay.
The Russian authorities, already engaged in bloody conflict with Russia’s Muslim minority, particularly in the North Caucasus, were quick to capitalize on the opportunities the return of these men afforded for broader human rights abuses.
They were detained until June 2004, then released due to a lack of evidence. They were detained at the behest of the US government. Release after years of arbitrary detention did not herald freedom for any of them but a new ongoing nightmare.
“In the Final Analysis, the Russians Were Worse”
The Russian authorities lost no time in picking up the baton where the US left off. The severity of the persecution the men faced may have been intended to deter their efforts to sue the US and to silence them from speaking out against what they had suffered in Guantánamo and on their return to Russia.
At an Amnesty International conference in London in November 2005, Airat Vakhitov said, “I consider the biggest humiliation I have suffered [to be] the stigma that the Americans gave to me. The life-long brand of terrorist, extremist, which I received in Guantánamo has stayed with me since being extradited to Russia.”
Three years after their return, in March 2007, Human Rights Watch (HRW) produced a report, “The Stamp of Guantánamo,” which detailed the abuses the men faced since their return home. It classified these into “three main categories: torture; harassment; and denial of the right to a fair trial.”
Critical of their treatment by both the US and Russia, the report states, “At this writing, two of them have been tortured and are in prison after investigations and trials that did not meet international fair trial standards; one has been tortured and is in prison awaiting trial; the other four are either abroad or in hiding.” As a result, researchers were only able to speak to three of the men. Comparing experiences at Guantánamo and in Russia, one of the men told HRW: “In the final analysis, the Russians were worse.”
Life After Guantánamo
The two men who “have been tortured and are in prison” were Timur Ishmuratov and Ravil Gumarov. An explosion at a natural gas pipeline in January 2005 was considered a terrorist attack by the authorities. Interrogated a number of times prior to arrest, they were tortured into confessing with another man. At trial in September 2005, they were found not guilty by the jury, but this verdict was overturned in a politicized ruling by the Russian Supreme Court.
In a new trial in 2006, all three were convicted. The sentences were later reduced on appeal. Having served their time, the men have now been released, but they remain under constant police surveillance, and along with their families, are still subject to harassment by the authorities. In spite of no hard evidence placing them at the scene of the crime, implicating the two former Guantánamo prisoners allowed the Russian authorities to justify a broader crackdown on Muslim prisoners.
In June 2007, a few months after the publication of the HRW report, one of the prisoners hiding in Russia, Ruslan Odizhev, was shot dead by the police in the North Caucasus city of Nalchik. The police claimed he was armed and had become a militant. Such incidents where the police kill alleged armed militants with impunity remain frequent in the region.
Following his death, the Russian authorities claimed he had been wanted since 1999 in relation to bombings, which raised questions about his release in June 2004 if there had been evidence against him. The Russian authorities did not comment further. On the US side, Odizhev was classified a “confirmed” recidivist by the Pentagon in July 2007, but that status was posthumously downgraded to “suspected reengagement” in terrorist activity. Both states had something to gain, and to hide.
The HRW report did not receive widespread media attention at the time. Nonetheless, according to a 2009 diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, further HRW reports on the conditions of the detained Russian prisoners coupled with this report led to discussions between the two governments on the health of the three men held in Russian prisons. Given the US’s own violations of these men’s human rights, its concern was noncommittal: “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 and his immediate need for medical care.”
“Strongest Case of Mistreatment in Russian Detention”
Rasul Kudaev lived in a village on the outskirts of Nalchik. He returned from Guantánamo in poor health and unable to walk unassisted. When one of the worst terrorist attacks in Russia this century took place in Nalchik in October 2005, Kudaev would find himself designated a ringleader and a convenient scapegoat for the repressive response of the Russian state. Kudaev was one of 2,000 local men arrested; he was tortured into signing a confession prepared for him.
The trial would become the longest in modern Russian history and with the largest number of defendants, most of whom were tortured into confessing against themselves and others. Kudaev was used “to justify the existence of foreign involvement in the events in Nalchik on 13-14 October 2005,” according to the Russian human rights NGO Memorial which has classed him a political prisoner.
In December 2014 he and five other defendants were sentenced to life in prison in a bizarre verdict for a mass murder case in which the murder charge was dismissed for everyone involved. Kudaev and most of his codefendants appealed. The appeal was heard in January 2016 and while shorter sentences were reduced, none of the life sentences were mitigated.
Since March 2016 Kudaev has been held at the notorious maximum security Black Dolphin Federal Penitentiary Service Prison near the Kazakhstan border. Once again denied the right to a fair trial, Kudaev now finds himself in a Russian equivalent of Guantánamo Bay. Human rights lawyers report that he has been beaten and suffers abuse from prison guards here as well. The chances of a successful appeal within the Russian judicial system are unlikely.
Airat Vakhitov was one of the men who agreed to talk to HRW. He was outspoken about his experience at Guantánamo and persecution in Russia. He eventually left Russia, but remained undercover to avoid being found by the Russian authorities. Harassment of Russian dissidents abroad is not uncommon.
He settled in Turkey and used the country as a base to continue his criticism of Russia’s repression of its Muslim minority, and its involvement in Syria once that conflict broke out. In 2015, he told Newsweek, “Muslims in Russia have been frightened into silence by the repressive policies that have been methodically carried out throughout Putin’s rule.” He was also critical of Islamist militants fighting in Syria.
The stamp of Guantánamo is never far behind. In late 2013, a leading pro-Kremlin Islamic extremism expert claimed Vakhitov was the leader of a militant group in Syria and had fought in Afghanistan, too. As a former Guantánamo prisoner, there was no need to prove any of this. The Washington Post reproduced these claims almost entirely in 2015. Recently, they have been used to link Vakhitov to militants and militant groups.
He denied the claims, but worse was to come. Shortly after the June 2016 attack on Istanbul International Airport, Vakhitov was arrested. Voice of America erroneously reported he was arrested in connection with the attack, even though no other suspect was named and the Turkish authorities made no such claim. He was, in fact, arrested for visa irregularities and stood trial in late December 2016. The case is ongoing and he remains detained in Turkey. The outcome of this trial could see him extradited to Russia, which the Russian authorities have already requested.
Almost anticipating an incident, weeks before the United States government designated him a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” freezing any assets he may have in US territories. No mention of the risk he is thought to pose was made. This was followed in August 2016 by United Nations and European Union sanctions, based on the claims made in Russia in 2013, and curiously excluding his detention at Guantánamo.
A former Guantánamo and Taliban prisoner who refused to be bullied into silence and submission, Vakhitov is now hostage to geopolitics. Given the US and Russian collusion in his current situation, it would appear both have much to gain from his silence.
Last Man Standing
The final prisoner to be released from Guantánamo one day before Donald Trump became president was the last Russian held there: Ravil Mingazov. Like his compatriots, he had fled persecution in Russia in the 1990s and was sold to the US military in Pakistan. He was not charged at Guantánamo, and in 2010, a federal judge ordered his release.
Having had his only opportunity to state his case during his 2016 case review, which cleared him for release, he pleaded not to be returned to Russia. In 2015, his lawyers applied for family reunification to join his ex-wife and son in the UK, where they have been granted refugee status. Released instead to the United Arab Emirates, the Russian authorities, who have labeled him a terrorist, continue to seek his return.
Freed from Guantánamo, like his compatriots, he is still not free from the threat of persecution and torture. The nightmare of Guantánamo does not end. The men and their families remain a target. The continued existence of Guantánamo and the false premise of the “war on terror” have allowed two world superpowers that claim otherwise to be at loggerheads to collude closely in severe human rights abuses for many years. The proclaimed very public disparities between the two states hide far more alarming similarities.