“The Stamp of Guantanamo”

Human Rights Watch slapped both Russia and the United States in the face this week. The first slap was the release of a 43 page report detailing how the US sent seven “enemy combatants” held at Guantanamo Bay to Russia. The result was all seven, Rustam Akhmiarov, Ravil Gumarov, Timur Ishmuratov, Shamil Khazhiev, Rasul Kudaev, Ruslan Odizhev, and Airat Vakhitov, were repeatedly tortured and brutalized by Russian police and security forces. The second slap was a press release condemning Bush’s meeting with Russian Major-General Vladimir Shamanov.

The HRW report, “The Stamp of Guantanamo,” didn’t spare either party from vilification. First, the United States for “stamping” these seven men with the elastic label of “terrorist” and for the “torture and ill treatment” they suffered at Guantanamo. According to the British human rights group Reprieve, this included:

beatings; deliberately inflicting serious pain upon the wounded (by deliberately letting stretchers drop, for example); forcing detainees to kneel on small rocks for hours with their hands behind their heads; exposing detainees to the elements, especially cold; denying medical treatment, especially for the wounded; jumping and landing with the knees on the backs of detainees’ heads; depriving detainees of sleep; forcing detainees to run while shackled in painful positions; threatening detainees with dogs; desecrating the Koran and interfering with daily prayers; and at least initially, failing to honor the dietary restrictions of Muslims. Some said bright lights were shone on their faces throughout the night; others described crude and degrading attempts at sexual humiliation.

The main focus, however, was not United States was the use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, or in Guantanamo. It has done that more thoroughly in previous reports. The focus was on the US reliance on hollow “diplomatic assurances” from countries that they would not torture returnees, a subject HRW already dealt with in 2005. The Russian case only highlights to utter futility in such “assurances.”

Governments that have transferred or tried to transfer suspects with such “assurances” include Austria, Canada, Georgia, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The receiving countries have included China, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen, all of which have well documented records of torture. The US government has been particularly eager to use such “assurances” as it begins to repatriate detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

Human Rights Watch opposes the use of “diplomatic assurances” in returning suspects to countries where they are at risk of torture. Governments that engage in torture routinely deny it and refuse to investigate allegations of torture. A government that is already violating its international obligation not to torture cannot be trusted to abide by a further “assurance” that it will not torture. This report provides evidence of precisely that fact, in the case of Russia.

The report goes on to state that despite “diplomatic assurances” the Americans used the threat of torture in Russia as a coercive measure against the seven. As the report states: “The Americans … frightened us with return to Russia, [and] said that in Russia, we will be tortured,” Airat Vakhitov told Human Rights Watch. “There was constant blackmail,” Ravil Gumarov told Human Rights Watch. “They kept saying, ‘We’ll send you to Russia,’ that ‘They’ll string you up there’ and that kind of thing.”

Yet despite the United State’s direct involvement in the use of torture, as Ravil Gumarov told HRW, “In the final analysis, the Russians were worse.”

Russia’s state and local security forces are well known for their use of secret and arbitrary detention, intimidation, kidnapping, torture, and brutality, especially in Chechnya. And while Russia’s use of these methods pre-dates the “global war on terror”, the latter has only given the use of brutality new life and new “legal” justification. “The Russian human rights organization Memorial stated in February 2006, “We have extensive evidence to suggest that under the pretext of fighting ‘Islamic extremism’ and ‘international terrorism,’ a large-scale campaign of persecution of Muslim followers of so-called ‘unconventional’ Islamic sects has been launched in Russia,” the HRW report cites.

To get a sense of what these seven men went through upon their return to Russia, one need only point to the case of Rasul Kudaev.

Kudaev returned to Russia from Guantanamo with the following aliments: “hepatitis, stomach ulcers, the after-effects of a bullet he received in the hip in Afghanistan that was never removed, serious headaches, high blood pressure, and other ailments.” All of this rendered him disabled and incapable of working. But the fact that Kudaev was relegated to crutches didn’t stop the local FSB in Nalchik from abducting Kudaev in a sweep after several gunmen attacked government offices and police stations in Nalchik in October 2005.

The details of Kudaev’s detention were spelled out by his lawyer Irina Komissarova in her testimony before the European Court of Human Rights in December 2005. While Komissarova’s testimony is too long to quote in its entirety (I urge readers to read the report themselves), here is a sample:

Upon arrival at the Sixth Department I saw Kudaev R.V., who was sitting on a stool, in a contorted position, holding his stomach. There were a large bruise and many scratches on the right side of his face near the eye. Apart from the investigator, there were many other persons in the office (three to five people). Investigator Artemenko A., who had worked with him that day, gave me the record of the interrogation of suspect Kudaev R.V. to read. After reading the document, I asked Kudaev R.V. whether he had indeed given the testimony. In response, he expressed the wish to talk to me alone…

In our conversation, Kudaev R.V. told me that he had been tortured and beaten after he was brought to the Sixth Department. The testimony in the interrogation record was not his, it had been made up, and it was not correct…

When Kudaev R.V. informed the investigator that he would not sign the interrogation record… all hell broke loose!!! From all sides people in the office gathered around (by the way, none introduced themselves) and everyone started issuing threats at Kudaev R.V. In the end, he could no longer stand it and said that he would sign the interrogation record because he was afraid that after I left they would beat him again. Someone in the room told me “you are free to go, we don’t need your services any more.”

The fear expressed by Kudaev R.V. that he would again be beaten I saw as realistic.

I think readers get the gist of it. For more gory details I again suggest readers examine the report themselves.

HRW’s conclusion reiterates its admonition of both the United States and Russia.

Since September 11, 2001, the US government has advanced several novel and pernicious interpretations of international law, including the law on torture. The Bush administration’s attack on the Geneva Conventions, for example, has ignited a storm of criticism worldwide. Unfortunately, the US government’s novel and pernicious use of “diplomatic assurances” has not been as widely condemned by the international community—in large part because other governments, particularly Western European states and Canada, are using them too. These governments have played, therefore, an indirect role in the shameless use of “diplomatic assurances” that is described in this report.

Immediate responsibility for the suffering of these seven Russian men lies of course with the Russian government. But the US government must bear its share of the blame as well. Given the commonplace nature of torture by Russian law enforcement, it seems implausible that the Americans could have sent home these seven men, branded as they were by the “stamp of Guantanamo,” and expected them to suffer anything less than the misery that they have, in fact, endured.

It seems that when it comes to torture the Bush Administration and Russia are joined at the hip in other ways. On March 27, Bush did a photo-op with Russian Major-General Vladimir Shamanov. The Major-General was visiting the White House as the co-chairman of the Russian-US Commission on mission soldiers. Shamanov, according to HRW, “is implicated in grave human rights abuses, including the killing of civilians in the villages of Alkhan-Yurt in 1999 and Katyr-Yurt in 2000, and the illegal detention and torture of detainees in 2000.” HRW documented these abuses in a report in 1999. In addition, according to the Washington Post, “The European Court of Human Rights also has found Shamanov’s troops responsible for the “massive use of indiscriminate weapons” that killed civilians in another village, and human rights investigators concluded that detainees at a base under his command were beaten, subjected to electric shocks and held in pits.” Shamanov called these allegations as “fairy tales” in 2004.

The Bush Administration’s ignominy results not so much from meeting with Shamanov. After all, officials responsible for atrocities are easy to find working there daily. It comes from its feeble attempt to claim that it didn’t know about Shamanov’s crimes. As White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters, “The president was not aware of the allegations made against (Shamanov) and he was seeking to sharpen the focus on the commission’s good work.”

Not aware!? Perhaps a White House staffer should have consulted the Internets and do a search on the Google. Think Progress did and they found that “a quick Google search of “Vladimir Shamanov,” references to the general’s role in the killings come up on the first page.” Plus are we really to believe that anyone would get as much as a pinkie finger into the Oval Office without extensive background checks? Is White House security really that lax?

Alas we should remember that claims of amnesia are a favorite response for the White House. Either Bush has one of those flashy thingies from Men in Black in his desk or he and his people are flat out liars. I suspect the latter.

Oh and let us not forget that scandal begins with the Kremlin. Shamanov’s crimes were essentially applauded when he was awarded the “Hero of Russia” medal for his service in Chechnya in 1999. There are even reports that he proudly wore it to his visit to the Oval Office.