Tajiks released from Guantánamo sentenced to 17 years in prison

23.8.07

From Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, comes news that two of the three Tajik detainees released from Guantánamo in March –- Muqit Vohidov and Rukniddin Sharopov –- have received jail sentences of 17 years in “high-security penal colonies” (aka labour camps) for “serving as mercenaries in Afghanistan” –- where they were accused of aiding the Taliban by fighting for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) –- and for taking part in “illegal border crossing.” After passing sentence, the Supreme Court judge, Musammir Uroqov, said that both men had maintained their innocence, and added, “In their last words, they said they didn’t expect such consequences for acts they committed.”

After five years and four months in US custody –- first in Afghanistan, and then in Guantánamo –- this was probably something of an understatement. In Guantánamo, both men had admitted in their tribunals that they had been involved with the IMU, but claimed that they had been tricked into doing so.

Former Guantánamo inmates Muqit Vohidov and Rukniddin Sharopov

Former Guantánamo inmates Muqit Vohidov and Rukniddin Sharopov in a Dushanbe court during their trial (RFE/RL).

Sharopov, born in 1981 (although the US authorities stated that he was born in 1973), claimed that, because he wanted to earn some money, he agreed to “serve for the army of Tajikistan’s government.” He said that he believed that he would be serving in Lajerg in Tajikistan, but was “tricked” into fighting with the IMU and serving in Afghanistan instead. He explained that, in Lajerg, he found himself in a camp run by the IMU, where his passport was taken away from him, and one of the organization’s leaders, a man called Rostum, “told him it was better if he went into the military.” As a result, he said, he was sent to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against General Dostum’s Uzbek faction of the Northern Alliance.

He then explained that he was a passenger on a truck containing Uzbek soldiers –- not Taliban, as alleged by the US authorities –- who surrendered to Dostum’s forces in a compound in Khawaja Ghar, near the border with Tajikistan, and added that, although he had no criminal record in Tajikistan, he believed that this might cause a problem for him in his home country. “This is one thing the interrogators told me,” he said. “The interrogator told me it would be a problem for me if I went back to Tajikistan because I was with the Uzbek community.” He denied receiving training at Lajerg, as he had received some mandatory training in Tajikistan, and added that he didn’t like to shoot guns and that at the camp he collected wood for the fire: “I never fought before and I am not going to fight after this. I have never fought in my life.”

After his capture, he was taken to the Qala-i-Janghi prison in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and was one of only 86 men –- out of a total of around 450 foreign fighters –- who survived a notorious massacre in the fort that followed an uprising by a number of the prisoners. He said that he did not take part in the uprising, but was in the basement when it was flooded by the Northern Alliance and the US Special Forces, and that some soldiers untied his hands and “put something around my injury.”

Vohidov, born in 1969, also said that he had been tricked into joining the IMU. In his tribunal in Guantánamo, he explained that he was unaware that he was being recruited to join the IMU, and thought that he was going to be joining the Tajik army instead. He added that the man who lied to him about it –- and to three others in his group –- was a man called Rostum, presumably the same man identified by Sharopov as a regional leader of the IMU. He also said that he was not previously aware that there were any Uzbeks in Tajikistan, and added that his passport was taken away by a man called Zakir, who was surrounded by armed men who made it clear that they would shoot him if he asked too many questions, and was then flown by helicopter to Afghanistan in January 2001.

He said that he then spent time at three IMU offices in Afghanistan –- including offices in Kunduz and Kabul –- and wanted to escape but couldn’t, and added that he eventually found a teacher at a madrassa who told him that he would be able to escape from Mazar-e-Sharif, so he went there, spent three months trying to escape, and was then captured by General Dostum’s forces in November 2001. He admitted carrying a Kalashnikov when he was a guard at the madrassa, but denied an allegation that he fought against US forces. When asked how he was arrested, he said that he was in a room with three other people –- two he did not know and one doctor –- when “Somebody knocked on the door, I opened it and this person came and said, ‘Who are you?’ I told him I was a Tajik, and then he arrested me.” He also called Sharopov as a witness, who confirmed his story about their recruitment, but was unable to verify what had happened to him after he had left the IMU. Sharopov added that, after surviving the Qala-i-Janghi massacre, both he and Vohidov were held in a prison in Sheberghan that was run by General Dostum, until they were transferred to US custody.

Whilst it’s impossible to know if there is any truth in these stories, it’s noticeable that Sharopov and Vohidov were not the only detainees from countries to the north of Afghanistan to claim that they had been tricked or coerced into serving with the IMU or its affiliates. Ilkham Batayev, a Kazakh released in December 2006 (who was identified by the US authorities as an Uzbek), explained that he was the owner of a small trading business, and that he was kidnapped by thugs, who were probably members of the IMU, after he travelled to Tajikistan to sell apples, and was then taken to Afghanistan, where he was forced to work for the Taliban as a cook’s helper. Like Sharopov, he too ended up in Qala-i-Janghi, where he survived against the odds in the basement of the fort.

In addition, four “Russian” Muslims who were also held in Qala-i-Janghi –- two Balkars from Kabardino-Balkaria, north of Georgia, and two Tatars from Bashkortostan, north of Kazakhstan –- were also caught up in a dubious recruitment process. According to Igor Tkachyov, the head of a team of Russian investigators who visited them in Guantánamo, they had travelled via Tajikistan, where members of the Islamic opposition to President Emomali Rahmonov helped them get to Afghanistan. Tkachyov added that once they were there they “found themselves in a kind of totalitarian sect commanded by the Taliban … They were not allowed to be alone and had to do everything together, obeying strict regulations that left no time for anything but prayers.”

Whether anything more of the Tajiks’ stories will come to light is also impossible to know. According to RFE/RL, the judge in their case was satisfied that “investigations carried out in Vohidov and Sharopov’s native Isfara region proved that both men [had] been involved with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” and it’s unlikely that any further information will be forthcoming from the US authorities. Such is the secrecy surrounding the release of detainees from Guantánamo –- the Department of Defense publicly releases information about their nationalities, but not their names –- that it was not known until the trial began that Sharopov had even been released from Guantánamo, and the identity of the third Tajik released in March is still unknown.

Vohidov’s release, on the other hand, was reported at the time, because he was represented by a US lawyer, Michigan University Law School Professor Bridget McCormack –- and because lawyers are informed about plans to release their clients –- but McCormack was unable to provide any further information. Although she had represented Vohitov since 2005, when she was assigned his case after he had contacted the Center for Constitutional Rights, “asking for representation” and “saying that he didn’t know why he had been detained,” she admitted that she was unable to speak about the details of why he was suddenly released “because they are classified.” In a further admission that only reinforces the profound difficulties faced by Guantánamo detainees when they seek outside help, McCormack also explained that she was not allowed to meet with Vohitov “until she had acquired a special security clearance.” She added that this process “took almost a year,” and that Vohitov was released without ever having met her.

As Vohitov and Sharopov begin their long sentences in a Tajik prison, it seems hard to believe that they have received anything approaching justice, either during their 64 months in US custody, or in the court rooms of their homeland, and they join many others whose lives have been permanently blighted by the taint of Guantánamo, where the presumption of guilt –- untouched by due process –- contaminates all who have ended up in the Bush administration’s most visible gulag.

Note: The US authorities referred to Sharopov as Sharipov, and Vohitov was known, rather confusingly, as Sobit (Abdumukit) Valikhonovich (Vakhidov), and was later identified by his US lawyer as Wahldof Abdul Mokit.

For more on Guantánamo detainees from Tajikistan and other countries to the north of Afghanistan, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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