Group: Detainees U.S. Sent to Russia Were Abused
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Seven Russian citizens, former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, say U.S. authorities forced them to return to Russia against their will. Once they were in Moscow, they say, they were jailed on false charges and tortured. And they say that Washington knew they would probably be abused.
NPR's Gregory Feifer reports that the allegations were uncovered by the group Human Rights Watch, which published its findings today.
GREGORY FEIFER: Airat Vakhitov says he was living in Tajikistan in the year 2000 when he was kidnapped by local Islamist militants. He said they took him to Afghanistan where the Taliban sentenced him to life imprisonment on charges of spying for Russia. Vakhitov says in 2001, he was captured by U.S. forces who put him on a plane to Guantanamo Bay.
Mr. AIRAT VAKHITOV (Former Detainee, Guantanamo Bay): (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: It was incredibly harsh, he said, 28 hours blindfolded and shackled in a plane with your face in a mask and earmuffs on. It was difficult to breathe. Vakhitov spent two years in a metal cage in Guantanamo Bay before he was released without charges. But he says things went from bad to worse when the U.S. authorities deported him and six other Russian inmates back to Moscow against their will after receiving a so-called diplomatic assurance from the Russian government that they wouldn't be tortured.
On their return, the men were jailed for three months, but they say the real harassment began after their release. One of them, Ravil Gumarov, described it during a news conference in 2005.
Mr. RAVIL GUMAROV (Former Detainee, Guantanamo Bay): (Through translator) There was a stamp put on us. We were from Guantanamo. No one would give us work. It was impossible to settle down and live a normal life.
FEIFER: Airat Vakhitov was arrested on charges of terrorism but later released. He says such treatment is common for many Muslims in the country's southern provinces where authorities say they're battling Islamist extremism but locals say they're being unfairly targeted for widespread surveillance, arrest and torture just for displaying their faith.
Three of the former Guantanamo prisoners were arrested on charges of blowing up a natural gas pipeline, which they denied. During their news conference in 2005, one of the men, Fanis Shaikhutdinov(ph) said they were threatened with death, deprived of food and sleep for days, forced to stand with their arms handcuffed above their heads and beaten.
Mr. FANIS SHAIKHUTDINOV (Former Detainee, Guantanamo Bay): (Through translator) Once after I fell, police continued kicking and punching me, trying to hit me in the stomach. After it was over, I had difficulty breathing. They put a gasmask over my face and cut off the air supply, then they filled the tube with smoke from burning paper.
FEIFER: Two of the men confessed under the torture. During their trial, the jury voted unanimously to acquit them, but that verdict was overturned by the supreme court and the men are still in jail today.
Caroll Bogert, who wrote the Human Rights Watch report on the Guantanamo detainees, says the U.S. State Department has documented the endemic use of torture by Russian law enforcement for years.
Ms. CAROL BOGART (Human Rights Watch): There's no question that Washington knew these guys faced the risk in going back to Russia, and that's why they got this so-called diplomatic assurance to protect them against such a risk. And what our research demonstrated is that a diplomatic assurance is no protection at all.
FEIFER: One Russian citizen remains jailed in Guantanamo; there are reports in Moscow that he'll be released shortly. Of the original seven who were forced back to Russia, Airat Vakhitov is the only one not in prison or in hiding. He says he fears for his safety, but that he doesn't hold a grudge against the United States.
Mr. VAKHITOV: (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: America is a great country, he said, it's just the people are a little confused about what kinds of things their government is doing.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.