Calls for Review of Punitive Sentences for Ex-Guantánamo Tajiks

7.7.10

Muqit Vohidov and Rukhniddin Sharopov during thier trial in Tajikistan in 2007Back in August 2007, I reported the story of Muqit Vohidov and Rukhniddin Sharopov, Tajik prisoners in Guantánamo, released in March 2007, who had just been sentenced to 17 years in “high-security penal colonies” (aka labor camps) for “serving as mercenaries in Afghanistan.” The two men were convicted of aiding the Taliban by fighting for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and for taking part in “illegal border crossing.”

As I explained at the time:

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 they had been tricked into doing so.

As I also explained in my article, drawing on what was known of the men’s stories from reports in Guantánamo:

As Vohidov 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.

Nearly three years on from that punitive sentence, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting has revisited the story, explaining how the men’s families have been campaigning for a review of the verdict, and how prosecutors may now be prepared to review their case. Although arguments have been made that the sentence was justifiable because the men “committed acts that violate national law,” it has also been noted that the time they served in Guantánamo was not taken into account during the sentencing.

Moreover, other observers remain deeply critical, and their insights reflect badly not only on the Tajik authorities but also on the US government. As the IWPR article explains, Payam Foroughi, until recently a human rights officer with the OSCE in Tajikistan, “believes due process was not followed,” pointing out that the men “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 also believes that the court “should have probed further into the allegation that Vohidov and Sharopov willingly became members of the IMU,” adding, “If anything, the evidence points to them having been victims of human trafficking.”

Criticism of the US has come, inadvertently, from the judge in the men’s trial in 2007, who told IWPR, “We could not determine, even from the defendants, on what legal basis they were detained at and released from Guantánamo. We could not get hold of any documents. So we reached a verdict based on the documents that we had.” Highlighting this problem more explicitly, a local lawyer told IWPR that “the lack of documentation from Guantánamo was a recurring problem in countries to which detainees are repatriated.” He might have added that in most countries the authorities’ response was to let the men go.

Review Urged for Ex-Guantánamo Tajiks
By Dabiri Kabir, Daler Gufronov and Parvina Khamidova, Institute for War & Peace Reporting (RCA Issue 618), June 23, 2010

Legal experts say there is little justification for the continued detention of two former Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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.

Umar Abdulayev, photographed in Guantanamo by representatives of the International Committee of the Red CrossThere were a total of 12 Tajikistan nationals listed at Guantánamo. Of the 11 sent back to Tajikistan, all but three, including Vohidov and Sharopov were released on their return. The 12th, Umar Abdulloev {aka Abdulayev], is still in Guantánamo. His lawyer Matthew O’Hara says Abdulloev is concerned about what happened to Vohidov and Sharopov, and has asked not to be repatriated [Note: For the full story, see here].

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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 [Note: It has not been possible to identify Nasriddinov, as his name does not correspond to the names of any of the Tajiks held in Guantánamo].

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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo. 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo.

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.

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

Note: In August 2007, the two men were identified as Muqit Vohidov and Rukniddin Sharopov. In addition, 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.

Andy Worthington is the author of 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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