By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 3, 2006
KAZAN, Russia -- Timur Ishmuratov is back in prison, his fourth stretch in three countries since he crossed into Afghanistan in early 2001 looking, his family says, for the perfect Islamic society.
Now 31, Ishmuratov grew up in western Siberia and, by the time he left university, felt he could not live as a Muslim in Russia. Eventually, he turned to the austere rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. "He said to me that Afghanistan was the only place where a true Muslim life was possible," said his mother, Zoya Ishmuratova. "He said the country was not influenced by European culture, that women dressed properly."
In 2001, after U.S. forces attacked the Taliban in response to the hijackings of Sept. 11 that year, he was caught in a roundup of foreigners by anti-Taliban forces and turned over to Americans. He spent two years in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Flown back to his homeland on Feb. 27, 2004, with six other Russians, he's now in a jail here.
What these men did in Afghanistan remains unclear. All of them say they went there on religious quests and were not fighters, but there is no way to corroborate their stories. One still carries a bullet in his leg from his period in the country. U.S. authorities, in the end, did not have enough evidence to hold them.
Since returning to this country, human rights groups contend, Ishmuratov and other former Guantanamo inmates have been harassed, physically abused and prosecuted by authorities here in a campaign to lock them up for the long term.
In May of this year, Ishmuratov, a slight man now shorn of his beard, was sentenced to a long prison term on charges of sabotaging a gas pipeline in a town southeast of here in Tatarstan, a majority-Muslim republic in central Russia. Human rights groups say there are credible accusations of torture leading to forced confessions by Ishmuratov and the two other men tried with him.
The fate of the Guantanamo prisoners, activists here say, calls into question not only the rule of law in Russia but also U.S. responsibility under international conventions not to return inmates to countries where they face the threat of torture.
"The U.S. government has failed these men three times," said Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, which is studying the fates of the former Russian inmates. "First, by detaining these men without charge at Guantanamo, then by sending them back to Russia in violation of international law because they faced the real threat of torture, and third, by failing to monitor and protest their treatment."
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow declined to comment on the men. But in a statement it said that "in all instances, the United States seeks assurances that countries will treat their detainees humanely. The United States does not return individuals to their home countries when it is more likely than not that they will be tortured.
"Diplomatic assurances are only one part of the equation, however," it said, "and all facts are taken into consideration. The decision to return a detainee to their home country is based on the totality of the circumstances. Diplomatic assurances are not a substitute for this analysis."
Russian prosecutors reject allegations of mistreatment and said that in the case of Ishmuratov, his guilt was proven in court, albeit in a second trial. A first jury found him and the two other defendants not guilty.
"They are religious fanatics," said Farit Zagidullin, deputy prosecutor in Tatarstan, whose office prosecuted Ishmuratov in the pipeline explosion along with former Guantanamo inmate Ravil Gumarov, 43, and another alleged accomplice, Fanis Shaikhutdinov, 41. "They want to inflame the situation in Tatarstan, where people of all religions want to live in peace with each other."
On returning to Russia in 2004, the seven prisoners were initially held in a detention center in the southern town of Pyatigorsk that is run by the FSB, the domestic successor of the KGB. Russian authorities had assured the U.S. government that they would investigate the inmates, and they were held on suspicion of crossing international borders illegally and mercenary activity.
One of the seven men, Airat Vakhitov, said the prisoners were immediately subjected to physical abuse. "They told me to get down on my knees and pray as a Christian to Jesus Christ," Vakhitov said at a news conference in Moscow last year. "I refused. They beat me and burnt my back with cigarette butts." Russian officials deny the allegations.
In June 2004, the FSB released all seven after prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to hold them. But that did not end official interest in the men. "They have been subjected to constant surveillance and questioning, home raids which have taken place at all hours of the day and night, mistreatment during these raids and during arrests," said Saadiya Chaudary, a London-based lawyer working with the human rights group Reprieve, which is bringing a lawsuit against the United States on behalf of Guantanamo inmates of various nationalities, including the Russians.
"The authorities also initially denied them internal and external Russian passports. The internal passports are required in order to obtain medical treatment, which many of the guys were in need of," Chaudary said.
The new case against Ishmuratov began with a gas line explosion on the morning of Jan. 8, 2005, in the town of Bugulma. Local police first thought it was an accident. An FSB forensic team ruled it a deliberate bombing. In April 2005, Ishmuratov, Gumarov and three other men were arrested. Ishmuratov and Gumarov quickly confessed, prosecutors said, and two of the other men provided statements that supported the case against them.
In a letter to the Russian human rights group Memorial, Ishmuratov said he confessed after he was beaten and investigators threatened to arrest his pregnant wife. Gumarov, in a letter to his mother, said his interrogators tore hair from his beard and forced vodka down his throat. Both men later withdrew their confessions, but prosecutors were still able to use the material in court.
Besides the confessions, prosecutors said, forensic investigators found traces of explosives in a car used by Gumarov and a backpack used by another of the defendants. Defense lawyers said Gumarov had fireworks in his car around New Year's Eve, which might explain the traces. But they had no explanation for the traces on the backpack. "I can only assume it was planted," said Hamid Samatov, one of the lawyers.
Prosecutors also pointed to 47 phone and text messages among the three in the run-up to the explosion. But lawyers for the three said there was no record of the men speaking by phone on Jan. 7, the day before the explosion, as they supposedly said in their confessions.
In September 2005, a jury voted 12 to 0 to acquit the men. But the Russian Supreme Court later overturned the verdict, citing hints in the final statement of Gumarov's lawyer that the confessions were coerced, which the court said showed that the entire proceedings were tainted and would have to be conducted again. In May, after hearing much of the same evidence, a second jury voted 12 to 0 to convict the men. Ishmuratov was sentenced to 11 years in prison and Gumarov to 13 years.
Last month, Human Rights Watch, while researching another terrorism case in Tatarstan, found a signed confession by a man named Vilsur Khairullin stating he was responsible for the pipeline bombing. Lawyers for the Guantanamo inmates had been unaware of its existence.
"If Khairullin's confession was truthful, defense lawyers in the explosion case certainly should have been told about it," Bogert said. "If it wasn't, that also raises the question of what methods investigators in Tatarstan are using to extract confessions from suspects."
Vadim Maximov, an investigator in the Khairullin case, said the confession was invalid. Maximov said that he took Khairullin to the scene of the pipeline explosion but that the man was unable to point to where the blast took place and got critical information wrong, such as the type of explosive and timer used.
The spate of prosecutions has apparently frightened the other former Guantanamo inmates. Ruslan Odizhev is in hiding, but whether he is still in Russia is unknown. Two other former inmates, Vakhitov and Rustam Akhmerov, have fled the country, fearing that they, too, would face criminal charges, according to family members and human rights activists.
"He won't return," said Vakhitov's mother, Amina Khasanova, who said she doesn't know where her son is and doesn't ask when he calls.
Another of the men, Shamil Khazhiyev, is still in Russia but keeping a low profile, according to human rights activists who tried unsuccessfully to talk to him about his experience since he returned to Russia.
The seventh inmate, identified here as Rasul Kudayev, was arrested in the southern Russian city of Nalchik after an assault on government facilities in October 2005 and accused of leading a group that killed a police officer in the attack. His lawyers and family said he was tortured into signing a confession.
An eighth Russian, Ravil Mingazov, 38, remains imprisoned at Guantanamo.
"He never said in his letters, but I think he doesn't want to return to Russia," said his mother, Zukhra Mingazova. "I wouldn't want him to return. I will leave for any Muslim country that takes him, with great pleasure. He has no future in this country."