The motivations of the Russian government in this post-Guantanamo story remain obscure.  The Procuracy General, which negotiated the detainees’ return with the Americans, supposedly pledged to prosecute them for terrorism. Yet Russian officials made at best desultory attempts to build cases against the seven men. Both Gumarov and Vakhitov told Human Rights Watch that while in detention in Pyatigorsk they were interrogated only once, and even then somewhat haphazardly. Gumarov told Human Rights Watch that his interrogator seemed to be trying to figure out if he, Gumarov, had actually been sent to Afghanistan for Russian intelligence.101  Later, when they were released, the detainees were given the impression that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervened on their behalf, to spite the Americans. But at that time they did not encounter officials from any ministry who seemed truly keen to prosecute. Moreover, the decision to release such internationally significant prisoners would likely have been taken at a higher level than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the moment of release, according to Gumarov, Russian officials were portraying themselves to the detainees in a positive light. “The Americans wanted to put you away, but we’re letting you out, we’re such good guys,” Gumarov quoted Russian officials as saying.102

Local Russian officials were the ones who tortured, harassed, and mistreated the ex-Guantanamo detainees. There is no evidence to suggest that they did so according to a specific directive from the national government. But this does not absolve Moscow of responsibility for the fate of these seven men. The obligation not to tolerate torture stems from the Russian government’s signature and ratification of the Convention against Torture, as well as many other international treaties and agreements.

This obligation was not, in fact, derived from the flimsy, non-binding agreement that the Russian and American governments mentioned at the time of the detainees’ transfer. Indeed, the evidence of torture and mistreatment presented in this report demonstrates the fundamental powerlessness of such a “diplomatic assurance.” When a government is failing to honor its basic obligation not to torture suspects in its custody—when it is violating its own promises under international law—unenforceable bilateral agreements about torture do not provide any additional safeguards for detainees.

Nor do such agreements lift any legal obligations for the country sending the detainee back home.  Since September 11, 2001, the US government has advanced several novel and pernicious interpretations of international law, including the law on torture. The Bush administration’s attack on the Geneva Conventions, for example, has ignited a storm of criticism worldwide. Unfortunately, the US government’s novel and pernicious use of “diplomatic assurances” has not been as widely condemned by the international community—in large part because other governments, particularly Western European states and Canada, are using them too. These governments have played, therefore, an indirect role in the shameless use of “diplomatic assurances” that is described in this report.

Immediate responsibility for the suffering of these seven Russian men lies of course with the Russian government.  But the US government must bear its share of the blame as well. Given the commonplace nature of torture by Russian law enforcement, it seems implausible that the Americans could have sent home these seven men, branded as they were by the “stamp of Guantanamo,” and expected them to suffer anything less than the misery that they have, in fact, endured.

101 Human Rights Watch interview with Ravil Gumarov, date and place withheld. Ishmuratov also told a Moscow press conference that after the Bugulma pipeline explosion, local FSB officials seemed to think he might have been recruited by the national FSB while he was in Pyatigorsk. See Ishmuratov, Gumarov, and Shakhutdinov, press conference, October 14, 2005.

102 Human Rights Watch interview with Ravil Gumarov, date and place withheld.