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on the world: a view on human rights

Who’s Afraid of Airat Vakhitov?


By the time Airat Nasimovich Vakhitov turns 40, he will already have spent a good part of his life on the run, not from justice but the Russian state. His attempts to flee persecution have seen him held prisoner by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the US military at Guantánamo Bay.

The US found him to be “cooperative” but that “the information obtained from and about him as not valuable or tactically exploitable.” He was quickly “assessed as neither affiliated with al-Qaida nor as being a Taliban leader.”

Released without charge or trial to Russia in March 2004 with six other Russian nationals held at Guantánamo, Vakhitov told Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2007 that Russian law enforcement agents told him “many times that after my time in Guantanamo, it wasn’t necessary to prove I was a terrorist. […] any one of us could be thrown in jail because we were terrorists.”

A trained imam, advocate for minority human rights in the Russian Federation and journalist, there is no concrete evidence that Vakhitov has ever trained or been engaged in militant activity anywhere. Tortured by the US and Russia, he has become a thorn in the side of their foreign policies. His ordeal validates the adage: “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

Since July 2016, Vakhitov has been imprisoned in Turkey and faces trial. The outcome could see Vakhitov extradited to Russia. International sanctions and other events over the past year, however, show that it is not just Russia that is seeking to silence Airat Vakhitov: there is active collusion by the US and the international community.

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Once Upon a Time in the Russian Federation

An ethnic Tatar, Airat Vakhitov was born in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny in the Republic of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation on 23 March 1977. With the Soviet Union collapsing in his childhood, Vakhitov grew up and received his education in a period of renewed interest in religion, including Islam for the majority-Muslim community in Tatarstan. He trained as an imam, and with fluency in a number of languages including Arabic, his services were much needed at a time when there was a dearth of educated religious figures.

It was also the time of bloody conflict in Chechnya, with official wartime in 1994-1996 and 1999-2000. In between the two official wars, Vakhitov visited the region. He claims he had gone to offer assistance to people affected by the conflict. He was arrested by the Russian authorities in 1999 and accused of taking part in the armed conflict. He was beaten and tortured in detention for two months but was released without charge, due to a lack of evidence. When the second war broke out later that year, he fled Russia fearing that he would face further persecution for his past visit.

He fled to Tajikistan, where he had family, and then over the border to Afghanistan after foreign nationals were expelled from Tajikistan. In Afghanistan, the Taliban accused him of being a Russian spy. He was held at the Sarpuza Prison Complex in Kandahar. When the war broke out in 2001, the Northern Alliance overran the Taliban, took over the prison and sold the foreign prisoners to the US military.

In the Gulag of Our Times

Airat Vakhitov was held at Guantánamo Bay from June 2002 to February 2004. He was cleared for release within months. He and the other Russian nationals held there reported that they were subject to ”intense psychological pressure, including long periods in solitary confinement, sexual humiliation inflicted by female staff, sleep deprivation, and the spraying of a pepper gas that in some cases may have caused long-term damage to the eyes.”

Nonetheless, Vakhitov and his compatriots asked not to be sent back to Russia where they feared further persecution and torture. Their families asked for them to be released to safe third countries. The United States returned the men to Russia knowing full well what lay ahead. They arrived in Russia on 1 March 2004 on the basis of diplomatic assurances not to torture even though Russia is a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture. Torture and death by torture and beatings in Russian prisons are not unusual.

On 1 March, the Procuracy General of the Russian Federation issued a statement that claimed “All these people were recruited by representatives of radical Islamic organizations and later sent over to Afghanistan, where they fought on the side of the Taliban.” The truth was already irrelevant.

Russia promised the US it would continue to monitor and detain the men. Vakhitov and the others were charged with participation in a criminal conspiracy and unlawfully crossing the national border at a prison in Pyatigorsk in southern Russia. They were released on 22 June 2004 due to a lack of evidence and the Russian authorities had no proof any of them had fought in Afghanistan.

No Place like Home…

This was not the end but the beginning of a new period of harassment in Russia. Vakhitov told HRW that for the next two years he was constantly harassed and abused by law enforcement authorities in Russia. He moved around constantly as he was being followed. He moved to Moscow and was joined by another former Guantánamo prisoner Rustam Akhmiarov.

On 27 August 2005, the two men were kidnapped by unidentified policemen and flown to a detention facility in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. Held on suspicion of terrorism-related offences, they were not formally charged and were released in Naberezhnye Chelny on 2 September 2005. This was after Amnesty International issued an urgent action following their “disappearance”.  This incident prompted Vakhitov to leave Russia again.

In November 2005, Airat Vakhitov spoke at a conference in London organised by Amnesty International and Reprieve. In an interview he told Amnesty, “I consider the biggest humiliation I have suffered is the stigma that the Americans gave to me. The life-long brand of terrorist, extremist, which I received in Guantánamo has stayed with me since being extradited to Russia.

“We have to expose to the public these crimes of the system speaking out for all of the international community, few people have taken the opportunity using legitimate or other methods and people are starting to understand what happened. Some people on behalf of the whole community say that Muslims are the terrorists, bandits and killers. I face insults in the streets. It is the fault of a group of people who speak out on behalf of the world’s Islamic Uma. I think not all people share the point of view of Bush’s administration. Not all Muslims share the opinion of Osama Bin Laden or Zarkowi. There is an attempt to cause tension between two big civilizations and we became the victims of this war, we were caught in the middle.”

A New Life

Vakhitov moved to the Middle East and eventually settled in Turkey where he became an active member of the Russian émigré community. He used the country as a base for his writing and videos against the ongoing persecution, torture and “disappearances” of Muslims in the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin. He is reported to have renounced his Russian nationality. His current citizenship, if any, is unknown.

The outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011 saw refugees start to pour across the border into Turkey. He collected funds he claims he used to rebuild a school – a secular, not an Islamic, school, he pointed out in an interview with the NGO Open Russia in 2015 – and helped to feed displaced orphans and villagers. He travelled to Syria in 2012-2013.

Vakhitov has been equally critical of the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group. He has written many articles in Russian denouncing their ideology and urging Russian Muslims not to join them. This has resulted in death threats on social media from militant supporters.

One of the most outspoken critics of the Putin regime in the Russian Muslim émigré community, he has spoken against terrorism to the BBC and in 2015, he told Newsweek “Muslims in Russia have been frightened into silence by the repressive policies that have been methodically carried out throughout Putin’s rule.”

Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Syria and its close alliance with the Syrian regime, coupled with the threat of home-grown terrorism has given the Russian state a pretext to detain and persecute individuals on the allegation that they pose a threat to the Russian state, and to silence dissent.

Branded for Life

Airat Vakhitov is not the first former Guantánamo prisoner to have had tenuous links created between him and militant organisations in Syria. This false and thus far unsubstantiated narrative aims to create continuity in the never-ending war on terror, between the conflict that started in 2001 and that which rages today, with largely the same global players. Like 86% of prisoners held at Guantánamo, Vakhitov was not engaged in combat in Afghanistan. He was sold to the US military by its Afghan allies.

Nonetheless, Vakhitov is now reported to be a leader of the Bulgar Jamaat, allegedly recruiting and training 100 Russian fighters allied to the Al-Nusrah Front in Syria. There is no proof that Vakhitov ever received or gave such training or any information about his followers. The fact that Vakhitov was once held in Guantánamo makes that quite unnecessary.

The main allegations against Vakhitov, which he has emphatically denied, were made in 2013 by Russian counter-terrorism expert Rais Suleymanov from the influential state-sponsored Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS). Suleymanov claimed that hundreds of Russian Muslim extremists were fighting in Syria. He cited Vakhitov as one of their leaders, linked his arrest and “disappearance” in 2005 to a terrorist attack – he was released without charge – and relied on the fact that he was held at Guantánamo as evidence of this status.

Suleymanov linked Vakhitov to fellow Tatar Irek Hamidullin, held at Bagram for a number of years and currently serving a life sentence in the US, as the inspiration for this militant group. The link is yet again circumstantial: Hamidullin is also from Naberezhnye Chelny where Vakhitov admits having met him at the mosque, and he was allegedly in Afghanistan at the same time. Hamidullin was arrested by the US in 2009; he had no legal representation at his trial and the US admits that very little is known about him or what he was doing prior to his arrest. Furthermore, the US military itself stated that Vakhitov had no links to Al Qaeda.

Suleymanov is a controversial figure who frequently makes exaggerated claims about the level of extremist Islamic militancy in Russia. Investigations by the authorities into militant training camps he claims exist have found nothing and he has branded peaceful individuals as terrorists.

This did not prevent the Washington Post from reposting Suleymanov’s conjectures almost wholesale in November 2015 and claiming that the Jamaat (group) is an offshoot of Al Qaeda. More recently, far-right think tanks in the UK have used this information to link Vakhitov to yet more alleged militants who are reported to have been either in Syria, Afghanistan or both countries.

Consequences

The consequences of this witch hunt against Vakhitov came to a head in the summer of 2016. On 29 June, 41 people died and over 200 were injured in a suicide bombing at Istanbul International Airport. The attack was linked to ISIS and a large number of foreign nationals, including Russians, were arrested in the process. None were named, yet Voice of America reported erroneously that Vakhitov was linked to the airport bombing. This became the media narrative. The Russian president and the president of Chechnya used the incident to request that Turkey extradites a number of nationals living in the country.

Vakhitov was arrested on 5 July in relation to visa irregularities, and an allegation that he has ties to ISIS. It is not clear when he was charged with the second offence.

That was not all. On 14 July 2016, the United States government published an order signed by Secretary of State John Kerry on 29 June 2016 designating Vakhitov a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”, almost as though it was anticipating an incident to justify this claim. The designation itself simply means that any assets he has in the US are frozen.

On 3 August 2016, this was followed by UN Security Council sanctions for alleged financing of terrorist organisations. This order, which curiously does not mention Vakhitov’s detention at Guantánamo or in Afghanistan, runs off the list of claims made by the Russian government and states that “Currently, Vakhitov leads a group of about 100 fighters, which mostly consist of natives of the North Caucasus and Povolzhye regions of the Russian Federation.” The European Union followed with similar sanctions on 8 August 2016.

The Russian authorities frequently sends instructions to Interpol to check the overseas activities of dissidents. Having located him, the sanctions may be to prevent Vakhitov attempting to escape anywhere else. The long arm of the Russian state follows dissidents abroad and persecute them there. Political refugees like Vakhitov are particularly at risk.

Trial and error

On 29 December 2016, Airat Vakhitov stood trial at the Antalya Criminal Court on charges of being a member of ISIS and having false ID documents. He explained why he had fake documents and denied membership of ISIS or any terrorist organisation. The court accused him of having met a Russian suspected of involvement in the Istanbul airport bombing who was later released without charge and another man accused of involvement in a separate terrorist attack. A search of his computers and home did not yield any relevant information. The hearing was adjourned on the first day and has not since resumed.

In view of the current situation in Turkey, it is questionable that Vakhitov will get a fair trial. He faces the prospect of being returned to Russia. The recent global sanctions show that there are many who would like to see Airat Vakhitov silenced, not just the Russian government.

An outspoken and fearless opponent of the Russian government’s official narrative on Syria and the terror threat at home, Vakhitov is far more than just a critic of the Putin government. Having visited Chechnya, Afghanistan, Syria, and other states, and having been held prisoner by the Russians, the US and the Taliban, Airat Vakhitov is a first-hand witness to some of the worst atrocities of the twenty-first century. None of the many allegations made against him have ever resulted in prosecutable offences. Airat Vakhitov’s situation also unmasks the fact that while states like the US and Russia claim to be opponents and polar opposites their interests converge far too often and they will stop at nothing to silence those who stand in their way.

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