The people now being released from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay have already been deprived of their freedom without due process. In sending them back to their home countries, the US government has evidently concluded that they have not, after all, committed any crimes against the United States, or that they possess no useful information about terrorism, or that there is insufficient evidence to prove their criminal intent. Or perhaps, just that keeping them at Guantanamo is more trouble than they are worth.

For seven citizens of Russia, being released from Guantanamo Bay in 2004 was far from the end of their troubles. Despite promises to the US government to treat the men humanely upon their return, the Russian authorities have variously harassed, detained, mistreated, and beaten the former Guantanamo detainees since they returned.  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.  Taken together, their stories amount to a powerful indictment of the inept and abusive practices of the Russian criminal justice system.

But their stories amount to something more: they also expose the harmful consequences of transferring terrorist suspects to countries where they are at risk of torture.

Previous Human Rights Watch reports, as well as the work of many other human rights and international organizations, have extensively documented the cruelty of Russian criminal justice.  Torture and the denial of the right to a fair trial are endemic in Russian police investigations and trials, and in many ways the treatment of the seven former Guantanamo detainees does not differ significantly from that of many other Russian Muslims who are caught up in the wide dragnet of Russia’s counterterrorism campaign—or indeed, the treatment of anyone unlucky enough to be suspected of a crime in Russia. The experience of these seven men should be viewed in light of Russia’s problematic conduct of the so-called “war on terror,” and its highly abusive criminal justice system. But as seven men marked by the “stamp of Guantanamo” (in the words of one of them), they have endured a particularly harrowing odyssey at the hands of Russian law enforcement.

This report uses the Russian example to reveal the hollow nature of the “diplomatic assurances” that the US government is seeking as it transfers Guantanamo detainees back to their countries of origin, many of which have well documented records of torture.  Under the United Nations (UN) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as domestic law, the United States is prohibited from returning people to countries where there are substantial grounds for believing they would face a danger of torture.  So the US government—like a growing number of others—is asking governments for “diplomatic assurances” that they will not torture or mistreat terrorist suspects upon return.

Such an assurance was sought and obtained from the Russian government in 2004, before the seven detainees were flown home.  Both the US and Russian governments declined to release any substantive information to Human Rights Watch about their 2004 agreement to return the seven detainees.  Each government issued only the sketchiest of statements on March 1, 2004, the day the detainees landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport. What agreements the two governments really made remains opaque.

But one fact remains blindingly clear and is extensively documented in this report: Russian law enforcement agents hounded and abused these seven hapless men almost continuously after their return from Guantanamo, ending finally in the arrest or flight of almost all of them.  Some endured mistreatment in detention that amounted to torture.  Whatever promises of fair treatment were made by the Russian authorities, they clearly have been broken. 

The US government has triply wronged these men: first by detaining them without due process, second by returning them to Russia in violation of international law, and third by failing to follow and protest their mistreatment by Russian authorities after their return. In this last aspect, the Russian government of course bears the greatest and most immediate responsibility. But by branding these seven men “terrorist suspects,” the US government certainly rendered them more vulnerable targets for Russian abuse. In this sad post-Guantanamo tale, both the US and Russian governments have a great deal to answer for.

 Recommendations to the US government

  • Halt immediately the use of diplomatic assurances against torture for the transfer of any person in US custody who is at risk of such abuse upon return, and urge other governments to do the same.
  • Ensure that any decision to transfer is made in full compliance with the US’s domestic and international obligation not to return any person to a place where there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be at risk of being subjected to torture.
  • Ensure that any person subject to transfer from Guantanamo Bay to his home or a third country has an effective opportunity to challenge his transfer before an impartial body, including the reliability of any diplomatic assurances, based on fear of torture upon return.
  •  Refrain from urging other governments to detain and prosecute Guantanamo detainees unless there is adequate public evidence to support a prima facie case that the detainees are responsible for criminal acts.
  • Protest publicly and at the diplomatic level the mistreatment of former Guantanamo Bay detainees when evidence of such abuse is revealed.
  • Urge the Russian government and the governments of all nationals returned from Guantanamo Bay to permit visits to their countries in the form of  universal access and confidential visits to all detainees, including former Guantanamo inmates by independent, internationally reputable nongovernmental or humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross; and UN special mechanisms (such as the special rapporteur on torture).

Recommendations to the Russian government

  • Stop the persecution of former Guantanamo detainees and promptly restore to them all national identity papers and internal passports; international passports should also be granted unless reasonable grounds exist to deny them and opportunities are made available to challenge those denials.
  • Halt immediately the use of diplomatic assurances against torture for the transfer (whether to or from Russia) of any person who is at risk of such abuse upon return.
  • Fully and fairly investigate the claims of torture and ill-treatment of Rasul Kudaev, Timur Ishmuratov, and Ravil Gumarov, and hold accountable anyone found responsible for it; make the results of the investigations publicly available.
  • Allow individual complaints of torture to be heard by oversight bodies established under international treaties. This would entail declaring under Article 22 of the Convention against Torture that the Committee against Torture could receive individual complaints against Russia, as well as acceding to the 1976 Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Permit international monitoring of all detainees in Russia under conditions of confidentiality and universal access, including visits with former Guantanamo detainees, by:

o issuing a standing invitation to all UN special mechanisms, in particular the special rapporteur on torture, ensuring unfettered access in full conformity with that mandate’s long-established terms of reference.

o acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which provides for visits by international and national groups to monitor detainee treatment; and

o permitting access by international humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross; permitting access by reputable independent nongovernmental organizations, both national and international.