Rights Group Challenges Assurances On Torture

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 29, 2007

MOSCOW, March 28 -- Human Rights Watch on Wednesday challenged the value of "diplomatic assurances" routinely obtained by the United States from other governments that inmates returned home from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be treated humanely.

The New York-based advocacy group said governments with records of torture "don't suddenly change their behavior" because of agreements with Washington. The group called on the United States "to establish screening procedures so that a person being transferred from Guantanamo Bay has an effective opportunity to challenge his transfer before an impartial body."

If an inmate faces a credible threat of torture, then the United States should find a third country to settle the prisoner, the human rights group said. It noted that five Chinese Muslims from the Uighur ethnic minority who faced the risk of persecution in China were resettled in Albania. Other inmates, the group said, should have the same opportunity.

"We think that as a rule diplomatic assurances are inherently untrustworthy," said Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch, which released a report Wednesday on the fate of seven Russians returned here in March 2004 after being held in Guantanamo Bay. "For governments that already torture, it's just another piece of paper."

State Department legal adviser John B. Bellinger III said diplomatic assurances are not prohibited under international law and are an "important tool" in preventing torture of people being returned to foreign countries. He said the credibility of the government offering the assurances must be assessed. In some cases, he said, the United States has chosen not to accept them.

Human Rights Watch, he said, wanted to have things both ways. "We can't both immediately close Guantanamo but not send anyone back to their home country," he said. The group's call for an impartial body to consider prisoners' concerns would go against treaty obligations for the U.S. government to decide whether prisoners face danger.

Human Rights Watch questioned the worth of diplomatic assurances after examining the fate of the seven Russians, who it said were released from Guantanamo because U.S. authorities lacked evidence to prosecute them.

"The Russian authorities have variously harassed, detained, mistreated, and beaten the former Guantanamo detainees since they returned," the group said in a report titled "The 'Stamp of Guantanamo': The Story of Seven Men Betrayed by Russia's Diplomatic Assurances to the United States."

Two of the seven are in prison for the 2005 bombing of a gas pipeline in the Russian republic of Tatarstan. A third is in a pretrial detention center in Russia after being accused in an October 2005 armed uprising in the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a republic in southern Russia.

Human Rights Watch said that after a lengthy investigation it concluded that the three were tortured and proceedings against them were riddled with irregularities.

Ravil Gumarov and Timur Ishmuratov, who were accused of the gas pipeline bombing, were first acquitted by a jury, but prosecutors obtained a retrial and they were convicted in May 2006. Rasul Kudaev, accused of involvement in the uprising in Kabardino-Balkaria, has not been prosecuted, but remains in custody nearly a year and a half later.

Russian officials say the three men were treated fairly.

Six of the seven interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had begged American officials not to be returned to Russia, according to Bogert. She said U.S. officials failed to monitor what happened to the men despite diplomatic assurances from Russia.

Bellinger said the U.S. government did not have independent word on mistreatment of the men and "will be following up on them."

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