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

Review Urged for Ex-Guantanamo Tajiks

Two men convicted of joining Islamic militants deserve case review and shorter sentences, legal experts say.
By Dabiri Kabir, Daler Gufronov, Parvina Khamidova

Legal experts say there is little justification for the continued detention of two former Guantanamo detainees serving long prison terms in Tajikistan after being repatriated by the United States in 2007. 

Muqit Vohidov and Rukhniddin Sharopov, both 29, were arrested and sent to trial immediately after they were sent back to Tajikistan in March 2007 after spending five years and four months initially in Afghanistan and then at the Guantanamo detention facility. They were sentenced to 17 years in jail for serving as mercenaries with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, and illegally crossing the national border.

IWPR understands that Tajikistan’s prosecution may conduct a review of the case, at which time it could consider seeking shorter sentences.

The two were detained in the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in November 2001 by anti-Taleban forces of the Northern Alliance, and were later handed over to US custody.

The US authorities have released unclassified documents containing testimony from the two detainees in 2004, which show they were accused of being members of the IMU, which is on the US government’s list of terrorist organisations.

The documents state that Vohidov was transported by helicopter from eastern Tajikistan to Afghanistan in January 2001, and Sharopov travelled there at around the same time.

This testimony, from a Guantanamo tribunal review of Vohidov’s case in which Sharopov appeared as a witness, indicated they were recruited by the IMU in 2000 and taken to a camp in eastern Tajikistan. They then had their passports taken away and were made to perform menial tasks, before being taken to Afghanistan.

The men told the tribunal they thought they were being recruited into Tajikistan’s national army and had never heard of the IMU until they arrived in Afghanistan.

The IMU emerged from Islamists active in the Uzbek city of Namangan in the early Nineties, who shifted to Tajikistan following a government crackdown. The Tajik civil war was then in full swing, and the IMU developed as a guerrilla force allied with the opposition forces. After that conflict ended in 1997, the IMU evolved into a separate force whose stated agenda was to make war on governments in Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan. To this end, IMU guerrillas launched a series of raids into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000.

Forced out of Central Asia, the IMU relocated to Afghanistan where it joined forces with the country’s Taleban rulers. When the US-led Coalition arrived in late 2001, IMU fighters put up stiff resistance in Kunduz. Some were killed, others captured and many escaped to a new stronghold in northwest Pakistan.

There were a total of 12 Tajikistan nationals listed at Guantanamo. Of the 11 sent back to Tajikistan, all but three including Vohidov and Sharopov were released on their return. The 12th, Umar Abdulloev, is still in Guantanamo. His lawyer Matthew O’Hara says Abdulloev is concerned about what happened to Vohidov and Sharopov, and has asked not to be repatriated.

O’Hara believes that his client should be given asylum in some third country.

“US officials have a legal… and a moral obligation not to repatriate Umar to Tajikistan under the circumstances of his case,” he said, adding that a commitment by the Tajik authorities to protect his client’s rights “is plainly not enforceable and does not protect a person’s human rights in practice.”

He added, “The US State Department and respected NGOs all agree that human rights conditions in Tajik prisons and the Tajik justice system are poor, and that torture occurs with impunity in Tajik prisons. These are the reasons for our concerns.”

In its annual human rights for 2009 published in March this year, the US State Department said Tajikistan’s human rights record remained poor, noting problems such as the torture and abuse of detainees by the security forces, the denial of the right to fair trial, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, and lack of access to prisoners for international monitors like the Red Cross.

CAMPAIGN FOR RELEASE BASED ON MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES

The parents of both Vohidov and Sharopov have been campaigning for a review of their cases since their imprisonment. Last year, their mothers pressed their case in a letter addressed to President Imomali Rahmon and published in a local newspaper.

They argue that evidence brought at Guantanamo and the subsequent trial in Tajikistan does not show that the two, both born in 1981, were involved in combat or in acts of terrorism, so the sentences are disproportionate.

Vohidov’s father Valikhon says the Tajik court did not take extenuating circumstances into account.

“These two suffered for five years. They are very young and inexperienced,” he told IWPR. “They did not take part in the war and they didn’t kill anyone. This is unjust.”

Another former Guantanamo detainee sent back to Tajikistan, Ibrohim Nasriddinov, was given a 23-year sentence in 2007 for murder and weapons offences, to which he pleaded guilty.

Legal experts argue that given the nature of the offences and under other circumstances, Vohidov and Sharopov received too harsh a punishment, and that the time they spent at Guantanamo should have been taken into account.

Dushanbe-based lawyer Abduqayum Yusufov says that under international agreements on detention, the Tajik court should have subtracted the men’s five years of incarceration at Guantanamo from the sentence it imposed.

A former chairman of the Supreme Court, Mahmadali Vatanov, who now sits in parliament, declined to comment on these specific cases, but he agreed that under Tajik law, any previous time in detention should be taken into account.

Payam Foroughi, an independent expert and until last year a human rights officer with the OSCE in Tajikistan, has followed the cases, and believes due process was not followed.

“It appears they [defendants] had not enough, or any, time to sufficiently and seriously discuss and properly prepare their case with a lawyer – and one of their choice – prior to their court hearing,” he told IWPR. “In my opinion, there may not be sufficient evidence to keep them behind bars and that the two men may thus deserve to be freed, as they very likely pose no danger to their government and society.”

After arriving in Tajikistan in March 2007, the men were swiftly prosecuted and put on trial, and the verdict was announced in August the same year.

Foroughi believes that the court should have probed further into the allegation that Vohidov and Sharopov willingly became members of the IMU.

“If anything, the evidence points to them having been victims of human trafficking,” Foroughi said noting that it is not clear whether they had any idea which group in reality recruited them.

“They claim that they had thought they were joining the Tajik military, and this is not far-fetched. There is indeed a high possibility that they were deceived, and once they found out the nature of the people who had recruited them, their passports had already been forcefully taken away from them and they were forced to go to a place they later found was Afghanistan and it was literally impossible to return. In short, they were tricked, trafficked and trapped,” he said.

Musomir Urakov, the judge who presided in the trial of Vohidov and Sharopov, rejects suggestions that the trial was based on poor evidence.

“During the trial and appeal process, all their [defence] arguments were checked out, and as presiding judge, I can say the verdict was a fair one,” he said. “It’s generally the case that objections are raised. I think that if trial participants disagree [with the verdict], it is because not everyone is familiar with the law and its provisions.”

Asked why the time Vohidov and Sharopov spent at Guantanamo was not taken into account, Judge Urakov said the court had no documentary information relating to their detention there.

“We could not determine, even from the defendants, on what legal basis they were detained at and released from Guantanamo. We could not get hold of any documents. So we reached a verdict based on the documents that we had,” he said.

A Dushanbe-based lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said the lack of documentation from Guantanamo was a recurring problem in countries to which detainees are repatriated.

“If no charges are brought against them, then generally they are sent back home and are not given documentary confirmation,” he said.

IWPR contacted the US embassy in Tajikistan, but staff were unable to say whether former Guantanamo inmates were issued with documents confirming they had spent time there.

Azizmat Imomov, who was a deputy justice minister in 2007 and is now member of parliament in Tajikistan, insists it was correct to detain, question and prosecute the men on their return, and says they were guilty under national legislation.

“Despite the fact that these citizens were regarded as innocent abroad, within Tajikistan they committed acts that violate national law, and they should be punished,” he said.

PROSECUTORS NOW LOOKING AT POSSIBLE REVIEW

However, it now looks at least possible that the men’s cases will be reviewed. On May 26, their parents met Prosecutor General Sherkhon Salimzoda and asked him to review their cases and consider cutting their prison terms in view of the time they spent at Guantanamo.

A representative of the prosecutor general’s office, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR that following the meeting, the prosecutor’s office asked the Supreme Court to send it the case files so that it could look into the possibility of a review.

“We intend to look at all the details of this case again, and we will then give a more detailed answer,” said the official.

Dabir Kabir is a pseudonym for a Tajik journalist; Daler Gufronov is an IWPR-trained reporter; Parvina Khamidova is an IWPR editor in Tajikistan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.