Russia Releases Former Guantanamo Detainees

Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Seven Russians who were returned to their homeland for investigation and detention after being held by U.S. authorities in Guantanamo Bay prison have been released, Russian prosecutors confirmed today.

In an action that apparently confounded American officials, who were given no advance notice, the seven men accused of being former Taliban supporters in Afghanistan were released from a pretrial detention center in the North Caucasus region and allowed to return to their homes.

“The case against them has been closed,” said Natalya Vishnyakova, spokeswoman for the prosecutor general’s office. “In our decision, the general prosecutor’s office was guided by the norms of national and international law, and also our agreement with the U.S. side. We haven’t departed an iota from these provisions.”

A U.S. official said Russian prosecutors gave no notice before freeing the detainees, and American investigators learned of the release only through media reports.

“In accordance with the Russian government’s commitment to keep us informed of the results of its investigation, we have asked the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the general prosecutor for official information concerning these reports, and have not yet received a response,” the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said today.

Mark Jacobson, who helped fashion U.S. policy on detainees for the Defense Department, said officials in Washington believed the seven prisoners constituted a continuing security threat when they were transferred to Russian custody.

“We did not simply release these folks, we transferred them to the Russians because we felt they were still a threat to the U.S., and a threat to Russia,” said Jacobson, a visiting scholar at the Ohio State University.

“I would think the Russians would have been as concerned about these individuals as we were,” he said, in part because of purported links between Chechen separatist groups, who have mounted terrorist attacks in Russia, and Al Qaeda.

The seven men, residents of Russia’s Muslim-majority republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the Caucasus Mountain region and western Siberia, were among hundreds of people captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 and held at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Russia vigorously sought their transfer, and pledged to conduct full investigations and court proceedings — including, as Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov said at the time, “trial.”

At the time of their handover on Feb. 28, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the transfer agreement “included assurances that the individuals will be detained, investigated and prosecuted, as appropriate, under Russian law, and will be treated humanely in accordance with Russian law and obligations.”

A week after the detainees’ arrival in Russia, prosecutors filed criminal charges relating to illegal contacts, evasion of military service, unlawful preaching of radical Islam, and suspected links with “illegal armed gangs,” a usual reference to rebels in the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya.

It was not clear how the charges had been disposed of, though Russian news services said the release had followed a court order. The Moscow newspaper Kommersant reported that the cases against them “fell to pieces” because prosecutors could obtain no proof of alleged illegal activities, besides illegally crossing the border en route to Afghanistan. That crime carries a maximum sentence of two years.

Jacobson said it was possible that the Russian government conducted a full investigation and concluded there was no longer a reason to hold the men. Great Britain, he noted, held five British detainees within 24 hours of their transfer from Guantanamo on March 9.

“The Russians at least kept them a few months,” he said. “My only concern is whether the U.S. government was briefed or consulted on this issue, or at least given advance warning. If we weren’t, I think it’s a snub.”

Most of the detainees have said they traveled to Afghanistan to study Islam and live in a country ruled by Islamic law.

Amina Khasanova, the mother of former detainee Airat Vakhitov, said her son had gone to Afghanistan as a preacher and did not fight there.

“My son never took a weapon in his hand,” said Khasanova, a resident of the Tatarstan city of Naberezhnye Chelny. “Americans had no right to arrest him and keep him in prison for so long without a trial. This Bush, let him be cursed and damned forever for what he did in Afghanistan and Iraq. They had no right to go there and kill, torture and humiliate people.”

She said her son phoned her last week, apparently from the town of Pyatigorsk, in the North Caucasus, where the seven men had been held in a pretrial detention center. “He said, ‘Mother, I am free, I am coming home. I didn’t do anything bad. I am innocent.’.”

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.