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Out of the Guantanamo frying pan into the Russian fire

While Russia steps up calls for the US to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, its own abuse and mistreatment of Russian nationals who returned to the country from Guantánamo a decade ago is less well publicised.

Aisha Maniar
27 March 2014

Seven Russian nationals who had been held at Guantánamo Bay since mid-February 2002 arrived back in Moscow on 1 March 2004; an eighth Russian prisoner, Ravil Mingazov, remains. All are from persecuted Muslim ethnic minorities; some had previously suffered beatings and torture at the hands of law enforcement agents and had left Russia to ‘pursue religious freedom‘. All were arrested in Afghanistan, where several had been imprisoned by the Taliban as ‘Russian spies’. Although they were later accused by the US of fighting for various militant groups and the Taliban, no evidence has been produced to demonstrate that any of the Russian nationals had engaged in fighting in Afghanistan and once at Guantánamo, they were all quickly cleared for release by the end of 2002, deemed to be of ‘no further intelligence value to the United States’. 

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Guantanamo guards taunted prisoners about how they would be tortured in Russia. Photo cc: Richard M. Wolff

Russia gave the US diplomatic assurances that the men would be treated humanely on their return.

The Russian authorities visited the men at Guantánamo Bay and made an agreement with the US to take back their nationals and incarcerate them on return (a condition for release stipulated by the US). Russia, a state well-known for its use of torture, gave the US diplomatic assurances that the men would be treated humanely on their return. Such agreements not to torture, when made by states party to the UN Convention against Torture and other international agreements explicitly prohibiting its use, are often sufficient proof that they will resort to it. However, under the principle of non-refoulement, this does not relieve a state of its obligation not to send a person to a state where they are at risk of torture; the US thus breached its own legal obligations. Guantánamo guards taunted the men about how they would be tortured back in Russia; none had wanted to return.

Upon arrival, they were detained at a jail in Pyatigorsk, southern Russia, where they were charged with offences including participation in a criminal conspiracy and unlawful crossing of the national border, but were released in June that year owing to insufficient evidence. That was not the end of their ordeal: the fact that they had been held at Guantánamo was reason enough for continuing abuse, torture and harassment by the Russian authorities. Having been abused and tortured in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, one former prisoner told Human Rights Watch (HRW), ‘The Russians were worse’.

The Kudaev case

According to HRW, 36-year old Rasul Kudaev ‘presents the strongest case of mistreatment in Russian detention’. His is possibly the worst case of post-release abuse suffered by any former Guantánamo prisoner. In jail in Pyatigorsk, he was threatened by the security forces that they would not leave him alone. He later reported that he was afraid of being kidnapped and killed. On 15 August 2005, he was abducted from his home and interrogated by law enforcement agents.

He was shot in Afghanistan and the bullet lodged in his pelvis since 2001 still causes him severe pain. He also contracted hepatitis, high blood pressure and other health problems in Afghan and US custody. Possibly the worst form of abuse he faced was being denied identity documents that would allow him to access hospital treatment until early October 2005. There was still worse to come. 

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Following Beslan, Russian authorities intensified the crack down on alleged militants in the North Caucasus.Photo cc:Aaron Bird

Rasul Kudaev is from the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), a region in the North Caucasus with high levels of poverty and corruption and low living standards. He lived in a village just outside the regional capital Nalchik. Following the Beslan school shooting in 2004 in neighbouring North Ossetia, authoritarian measures were introduced in KBR, as well as a crackdown on alleged militants. Human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, including KBR, often receive little publicity in spite of increasing violence and repression in recent years. 

He was denied identity documents that would allow him to access hospital treatment.

Another former Guantánamo prisoner from Nalchik, Ruslan Odizhev, was shot dead by the military in 2007 in what can be described as an extrajudicial killing. The military claimed he had ‘returned to terrorism’ and was resisting arrest. No investigation has been carried out. Extrajudicial killings, ‘disappearances’, torture, arbitrary detention and other abuses occur frequently in the region. 

On 13 October 2005, armed groups attacked military and security installations across Nalchik, reportedly killing more than 150 people. As part of a broad sweep of over 2000 people over the next few weeks, Kudaev was arrested at his home on 23 October 2005. When he was brought before the Nalchik court two days later and charged with a number of terrorism-related offences, he had been severely beaten and had to be carried in as he could not walk or stand up straight.

The authorities have refused to investigate and some medical evidence has been withheld. Kudaev filed a partially successful claim against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights for breaches of his human rights under Articles 3 (prohibition of torture) and 13 (right to effective remedy), and this was followed by another successful claim in 2011 after he was beaten by guards while in solitary confinement.  

More than eight years in pre-trial detention

Since being charged, Kudaev has remained in detention at the Nalchik pre-trial detention centre along with his 57 co-defendants. His health remains a concern, with long periods when he is denied access to a doctor or medication. Nor has he had an independent medical examination.

Kudaev claims he signed a confession under duress of torture and has denied the charges against him. He also has an alibi: he asserts that he was at home at the time of the attacks, as he was most days due to his poor health, and witnesses have corroborated that in their own statements. Consequently, the human rights NGO Memorial tried unsuccessfully to have the case against him dropped in 2010. His confession and those of his co-defendants, obtained through torture, are the only evidence against him. 

Co-defendants who initially implicated Kudaev in the attacks later retracted their statements, citing torture.

The trial itself did not start until 2009 and is still ongoing almost a decade after the incident, making it the longest criminal trial in modern Russian history, as well the one with the largest number of defendants. In September 2013, the prosecution asked for Kudaev to be given a life sentence. In his final submission in November 2013, defence lawyer Mogamed Gagiev asserted that his client’s confession had been obtained ‘through physical and psychological coercion’ and that Kudaev, who was in no physical state to be involved in the attacks, had been implicated to ‘to lend an international character to the event in Nalchik in October 2005’. Some of the defendants have pleaded guilty to taking part in the attacks, but the majority plead innocent. A verdict is expected in June this year, and lawyers expect most of the men to be found guilty. 

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Russia has condemned human rights abuses in Guantanamo. Photo via US Federal Government

Co-defendants who initially implicated Kudaev in the attacks later retracted their statements, citing torture; some admitted they had never met him before. The local militant group, the KBR Jamaat, has also denied any links to him. Nonetheless, the fact that Kudaev was held as an alleged terrorist and tortured in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo has helped to justify similarly disproportionate and heavy-handed measures by the Russian authorities, regardless of innocence or guilt. For the US, Kudaev’s imprisonment in Russia was ‘proof’ of recidivism in released prisoners, and hence justification for the continued existence of Guantánamo and its regime of arbitrary detention. 

Russia condemns Guantánamo, but...

‘Memorial’ has classed Kudaev as a political prisoner. Having spent over two years in Guantánamo Bay, which he described as a ‘concentration camp’, for a crime he had nothing to do with, Rasul Kudaev has now spent more than eight years in detention at home for another crime all the evidence seems to indicate he was innocent of, through the simple expediency of implicating him and to justify human rights abuses. Prison officials told Kudaev many times they could do whatever they wanted to him as he had been held at Guantánamo Bay.

Summing up his client’s case, his lawyer Gagiev stated, ‘The whole world, particularly the Russian Federation, through its politicians, state officials and public figures, has recently condemned the atrocities at Guantánamo. But how are our pre-trial detention centres any better? No civil society will ever be built in our country until the law is the same for everyone, including state officials and law-enforcement officers.’ 

Ironically, had Kudaev spent the past nine years at Guantánamo Bay, subject to torture, coerced confessions and an unfair and protracted trial, as occurs in the arbitrary US military tribunals there, the Russian Federation would probably have been the first to rightly raise an international outcry against human rights violations and disregard for human life and dignity. 

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