Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ex-Guantanamo Inmates Still Behind Bars

Russian prisoners sent home from Guantanamo Bay remain in custody and their families are in the dark about what will happen to them.
By Muhammed Makoyev

The mother of Ruslan Odizhev, Nina, says that she has not been allowed to see her son - one of seven Russians released from the US prison at Guantamo Bay - since he returned to Russia.


At first he and the other former American prisoners were sent to remand jails, with the authorities refusing to even allow them to receive food from outside. Later, Odizhev’s family was allowed to bring him warm clothing and food.


The seven were recently transferred to the infamous Bely Lebed (White Swan) facility in the Stavropol region of southern Russia. Ruslan, 30, hails from Kabardino-Balkariya, but being so close to home is not a cause for rejoicing for his family.


When the Russians returned from Guantanamo, the Russian prosecutor general’s office released a tough statement saying, “Unlike the British law enforcement authorities, who dropped all charges and released the five British citizens extradited from the US Guantanamo base, the Russian prosecutor’s office has no intention of making rash decisions. The investigators will carefully examine the existing and new evidence in this case. All process decisions will be issued in strict conformity with Russian law.”


Nina Odizheva complains that Russia is treating its suspected Taleban too harshly. “Every nation is concerned about its citizens imprisoned at Guantanamo. The British released their own repatriates. But here people don’t seem to care at all. I’m on my own with my grief,” she said.


Odizhev began studying Islam in secondary school, and then took a course of Arabic. In 1991, he enrolled in the Islamic Institute in Nalchik, where he attended Sharia courses hosted by teachers from a Saudi Arabian university. In 1992, he fought with the Abkhaz in the Georgian-Abkhaz war, then went to Saudi Arabia, where he enrolled in Riyadh University. Odizhev contracted tuberculosis in Saudi Arabia, and had to return to Nalchik for treatment in 1994. From then on, he was in the sights of local law enforcement authorities. Several searches were conducted at his house, which yielded religious literature and video-tapes.


Odizhev was interrogated following the bomb blasts in Moscow in September 1999 as shortly before the terror attacks he had travelled to Moscow, where he and his business associates were renting several warehouses. Odizhev left Kabardino-Balkariya in mid-2000.


His mother said that her son had had to leave Russia to escape from constant persecution by the law enforcement authorities. “In May 2000, he was kidnapped by four unidentified assailants who turned out to be Stavropol FSB [intelligence service] agents,” she said. “Ruslan came home ten days later. He said he had been tortured.”


She then encouraged him to leave Russia, but cannot explain how he ended up in Afghanistan, “He was studiously learning the Persian language. I encouraged him to travel to a country where this language is spoken, in order to hone his skills.”


Odizheva firmly believes that her son did not fight for the Taleban in Afghanistan. “That’s not possible,” she told IWPR. “Ruslan was the sweetest kid, he loved children and animals. He can hardly see out of one eye due to a birth injury. How could he fight? In one of his latest letters I received from Guantanamo via the International Red Cross he told me he had never been a terrorist. He said he had been captured because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he said he felt optimistic.”


In the letters she got from Guantanamo, she said, much had been crossed out, but he always wrote that the conditions were quite good, “Ruslan wrote that the prison guards treated them well, the food was good, and medical service was great. This is what he wrote, ‘They take us to the shower and for a walk twice a week. Recently they tested us for TB. I’m clear, praise be to Allah! I don’t know if he was telling the truth or merely trying to comfort me’.”


The Russian authorities first learned there were Russian nationals among the Guantanamo detainees at the beginning of 2002. Their names were released a few weeks later. Along with Odizhev, there’s one other North Caucasian and five from central Russia. Despite Russian allegations of Chechen support for the Taleban, none were Chechens. The identity of an eighth man, still in Guantanamo, has not been revealed.


In January this year, Igor Tkachev, senior prosecutor for special engagements at the prosecutor general’s office, met with top US officials and later announced that Washington was considering the extradition of eight Russian nationals, and had already handed over more than 100 pages of investigation files. The seven men were repatriated on February 29.


Much less is known about the other North Caucasian returnee, Rasul Kudaev, 22. The headmaster of his old school, Suleiman Kaigermazov, told IWPR that Rasul was a quiet, unremarkable pupil. Some of his teachers find it hard to remember Rasul’s face. He took up wrestling in early childhood, and won a junior republic championship in 1995. In 2000, he went to Bukhara, Uzbekistan, to continue his wrestling career. Kudaev’s family never heard from or about him again until the news came he was in Guantanamo Bay.


It seems unlikely that the two men will be released or even face trial soon.


Odizhev’s lawyer Vladimir Bogoslovtsev, who has constant access to his client, insisted that there is no evidence of Odizhev being guilty of serious crimes. He said that the charges against him and the other six remain the same: participation in a criminal grouping, serving as a mercenary and illegal border crossing. The first charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison; the second, up to seven, and the third, two. Odizhev is pleading not guilty to all these charges.


Muhammed Makoev is a pseudonym for a journalist in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria