Returning from Guantanamo Bay, Airat Vakhitov has been persecuted by the Russian authorities despite continually proving that there is no case against him over suspected terrorism. His story, related in this Cageprisoners interview, is one of complete rejection from every single community he has encountered. Having first been picked up by the Taliban government as a Russian spy, he was later handed over to the Americans who having put him through torture sent him to Guantanamo Bay where he was continually abused. Now that he is back in Russia, life for Airat has not improved at all. However, despite all the rejection and persecution he has faced, he still stands up for his right to live a free man.
CAGEPRISONERS: Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
AIRAT VAKHITOV: Airat Vakhitov, former detainee of Guantanamo. I was an Imam in the Mosque.
CP: You were detained prior to your trip to Afghanistan by Chechen and Russian forces. Could you tell us about this?
AV: I was arrested in Russia, and there were reasons that I have visited Chechnya, but I visited Chechnya only because of the reason that I was seeing my friends over there.
CP: You later moved to Tajikistan. Could you describe what happened?
AV: When I was released from the Russian prison, they promised me that they would re-arrest me, they wouldn’t let me live like that. I decided that I didn’t want to go back to prison, and I decided to leave Russia for a while till the period I could see bearable in Russia. I didn’t have any documents to travel with, the new travel documents, nor money; therefore I chose Tajikistan where I had relatives.
CP: When you arrived in Afghanistan, you were imprisoned by the Taliban. On what grounds did they detain you? How do you respond to these allegations?
AV: I didn’t come to Afghanistan of my own will. I had been kidnapped on the territory of Tajikistan and was taken to Afghanistan by the Military Movement of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. When I was in Afghanistan, they accused me of working for the Russian Special Agency, though I think they were absolutely sure I wasn’t co-operating with Russian reconnaissance. But they just needed to report to their bosses that they do catch some sort of spies, so that they can justify their expenses in front of their sponsors.
I have been subjected to torture, constant torture in the basement of the prison of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. One of the detainees of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan managed to escape. He managed to get to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar and he told him everything about the bad conditions of what was happening in the prisons of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Mullah Omar was quite surprised to hear that there were other prisons on his territory apart from the ones which belong to the Taliban. He formed a commission but they decided the commission doesn’t have to see me. But probably after one year had elapsed they had to hand me over to the Taliban because the information was already there, so they knew I was detained there.
The Taliban decided to get to the bottom of my story themselves. There I had been detained in the military prison of the Taliban in Kandahar. But I didn’t wait to see the trial, because the military operation of invading Afghanistan by the coalition started. The prison where I was detained was partially bombed and suffered losses because of the bombardment. Then we had been transferred to the political prison of the city of Kandahar, because of the war conditions there, the war was going on, we were completely forgotten. Nevertheless, the ICSC had access to see us and we had the cards of the ICSC.
Then when the Northern Alliance came to power, they freed all the detainees, that was around 1,500 people. And only 8 or 9 people were still in prison – they didn’t let us go. 4 Iranians, but they let them go after 4 days, Jamal al-Harith, 2 Saudis and 1 Syrian. We requested the mission of the United Nations, which at that point started its work in Kandahar, so our request was to be handed over to our embassies in Pakistan so that we would be granted the status of political asylum over there. The UN representatives had passed this request to the government of the Northern Alliance, the new government asked the Americans; the Americans at that point were buying all the foreigners, so the military intelligence or police people (Americans) arrived and basically bought us and took us to the airport concentration camp in Kandahar. There I spent 6 months, and from there I was taken to Guantanamo.
CP: What was the nature of the interrogations at Kandahar? How often were you interrogated?
AV: The interrogations at Kandahar took place only 2 or 3 times, because it was quite obvious to them I had nothing to do with the terrorist activities. Nevertheless I was transferred to solitary confinement for 3 months because I wasn’t polite to the interrogator.
CP: In the summer of 2002, you were taken to Guantanamo. Could you describe your flight to Cuba? What was going through your mind?
AV: Before I was detained by the Americans, I had heard on the radio that people were sent to Guantanamo therefore I more or less guessed where I was being taken to. But I have to say the conditions of the flight were horrific. Our hands and legs were shackled, we had ear muffs on our ears, we had a mask on our face and we had goggles on our eyes, and the goggles were covered with paint so we couldn’t see anything through them and we had mittens. I lost consciousness a few times because of the lack of oxygen. And the flight took 28 hours.
CP: What kind of conditions were you detained under in Guantanamo?
AV: It was prison cell of iron bars, 2 x 1.5m, iron bed, the toilet seat and a washing basin, that’s it.
CP: Could you describe some of the prisoner abuse that you witnessed whilst you were imprisoned?
AV: I saw how my fellow inmates had been beaten, and I had been beaten myself on quite a few occasions. I also saw the desecration of the Qur’an. They abused our religious feelings. Also the way that they interfered with the adhan and with our prayers.
CP: What did you witness of the use of women to humiliate and break prisoners?
AV: The searches of the cells were conducted by women. They also made personal searches and it was a very humiliating thing when they searched your genitals. They also took part in the beating sessions. I personally think that they were much crueller than some of the men.
CP: It has come to light more recently that doctors in Guantanamo were complicit in the torture of the detainees and their interrogations. What did you experience or witness of this and of medical experimentation?
AV: I can recollect the guy under the name of Lutvi from Tunisia. They amputated 11 of his toes and fingers and they justified this by saying he had infected blood and gangrene. And really it was only inflammation, and his fingers and toes could have been saved easily. He told me that the doctor who operated on him was the one who interrogated him after that and while interrogating him he was beating him in all the places where he had just operated on him, this happened in Kandahar and when he was taken to Cuba, they stopped giving him any medical assistance. And then that’s where he developed real gangrene and he even had leeches in his legs. Around 10 people declared hunger strike in protest of his condition and only after that, a few days after that, they started to provide him medical assistance and provided wound dressing.
I remember the Uzbeki guy, Zakirjan, he complained in Bagram he had a stomach ache and they operated on his appendix, and when they finished operating on him they said you have cheated on the American soldiers, you don’t have any appendicitis, and because of that they began beating him on the operating table in the operation theatre. And that was just because he only complained about having a stomach ache.
There was another Kazakhstani under the name of Yaqoob, he was absolutely healthy when he arrived in Cuba, he had been injected a few times by the Americans and after that his mental condition has changed, there was something wrong with him; he couldn’t sleep. When he was more or less recovering from these injections, the guys around him tried to make him do some sort of exercise or do some normal activities. The guards would take him to the psychiatric unit and when they would bring him back he would be absolutely abnormal again; he would have saliva dripping from his mouth, he wouldn’t be able to sleep and he would not understand what was going on around him.
I also can recollect the story of the guy from Egypt, I can’t remember his name (Editor’s note: He is referring to Sami Al Laithi), probably Rustam can remember his name, he was infected by way of injection with syphilis. He was told only after a year that they had infected him and that was only because he wasn’t able to move on his own, he had to use the wheelchair.
I also saw when I was in the psychiatric unit, the people were given pills and after taking them, they would develop high fever, they would be extremely sick and they would have terrible headaches and after that the nurse would arrive and she would write down all the symptoms every 5 minutes. It was obvious they were experimenting, or trying some sort of medication on them.
If you want to, I can carry on like that forever, but I can mention another incident about Abdur-Rahman Rajabov from Tajikistan. Again, he was quite healthy when arrested, when he was in Cuba he was, as many of us were, infected with Hepatitis B. He started complaining and even declared a hunger strike because they didn’t provide any medical assistance for him in spite of him asking for it constantly. He was given pills which I think were much stronger than opium or heroin, because some of the guys tried them as well and the effect was much stronger than the real ones. One day, he overdosed and they stopped giving it to him, and then they took blood from him, and his condition of Hepatitis B didn’t stop developing because the problem is not only contained in the gall bladder. When he got back (from Guantanamo) some of the doctors and professors examined him and commented saying there was no justification for them to do that. These are only a few examples I have given to you, I can go on forever.
CP: What was the most difficult aspect of your detention?
AV: It was probably being deprived of my books – that is probably the worst for me.
CP: And how did you remain strong throughout your ordeal?
AV: I don’t consider myself being strong, I just took it all with a smile on my face. Even when they were beating me, I was still smiling. Once I can recollect the incident that I was tied up and on the floor, and there were four people attacking me and they were beating me. I was just smiling and laughing at them, and the rest of the prisoners reacted and were cheering and supporting and saying “yes, go on like that.”
That made the guards absolutely crazy. They couldn’t believe it but they couldn’t do anything about it. It happened in the place in the area where we walked, so quite a few of the blocks witnessed this, so basically the impact was huge as a lot of people saw that and they all cheered and supported, so there was a huge reaction to it. And I realised that whenever they want to harm you and to do something bad to you, all you have to do is smile and laugh at them, that’s the only way to deal with it. They just can’t stand or bear that, and that brought me a lot of moral satisfaction.
CP: In letters to your mother, you mentioned that you preferred to remain at Guantanamo rather than to be returned to Russian jails. Can you tell us why?
AV: First of all, I have to say that I wrote these letters, not for the public or press reading, but for my mother, but I do respect my mother and if she decided to show them to the journalists I have to respect her decision. There were two aims of this letter: firstly just to calm my mother, and secondly just to get revenge at the Russian Special Forces, just to make them feel angry about it. Both of the goals I have achieved.
CP: Did you receive any visits from any Russian officials? Did you complain about the treatment received?
AV: I was visited by the representatives of the General Prosecutors Office of Russian Federation and a few secret agents, but I made up my mind not to talk to them. I could only compare that if I was to complain to them, it would have been like the mouse complaining to the cat in front of the tiger.
CP: How did you feel that one of the other Russian brothers was to remain at Guantanamo?
AV: I am very concerned about his fate. I have contacted his lawyer with your, Cageprisoners, help. I think that his decision to refuse to come back to Russia was the right decision. We all refused to come back to Russia, he did exactly the same, but he confessed to participate in the Al-Qaeda movement just to stay there. I have heard this from the Russian media so I cannot confirm if that is true, it’s just what I know from the Russian media. Because I can only say that I have learnt quite a lot from the Russian media about myself.
CP: Can you describe your final moments in Guantanamo?
AV: We were all called to the interrogator and he was smiling and he told us “That’s it, you have to be happy, you’re all going back home”. They all knew I didn’t want to go home. They obviously wanted to see me really upset. And I shouted, “Hooray! Cheers! Good! I have managed to deceive and cheat you,” and then he was upset. But the airplane was already there, so everything was already sorted, so I knew nothing would be changed. There were a few days we spent in a white cell and there we were watched 24/7 and there was a woman sitting next to it, she was basically watching all our movements and recording it all. So even if we went to the toilet they would record it, whatever we did they would put it down. Then we were visited by the representatives of the ICSC, and then they asked whether we wanted to go home. I replied I didn’t want to go home, they said they could do nothing about. So I asked, “Did you come here simply to finish off this whole performance?”
Then we were visited by the Lieutenant Colonel of the American army and he had the camera men with him. Then they brought the paper which I was supposed to sign where it was stated that I had been arrested because I had been involved in military activities against the Americans. And from now on they will keep the right to arrest me anywhere. I can’t remember what I had done with this paper. I probably tore it into pieces or spat on it. I literally was very angry with them, and I told them that. Then four huge black guys entered the cell and I told them I’m not going to go on my own, if you want to take me you can carry me, and then they brought the stretchers and then I literally took pity on them and I thought, never mind, they are blacks and I can feel pity on them.
Then they took us to the airport, there was a corridor probably 100 metres and it was lined with armed soldiers, and they were heavily armed. And of course I knew it was all because of the show, I knew they could not harm me. Therefore I spat at all of them and then I just damned them, and my phrase was “Goodbye America”.
CP: You were detained upon arrival in Russia. Could you tell us about the conditions of your detention? You allegedly said that “Russian jail is hell” – how did you compare this with the treatment in Guantanamo?
AV: The conditions in the Russian jail lack sanitary conditions. When I was held in the Afghan prisons, we were visited by the ICSC and they disinfected the place. There is no such thing in the Russian prisons. All possible kinds of insects and ve
rmin, they’re all there in the prison cells. We had fleas, the food was rotten cabbage which has been held somewhere in the basement for a few years or more. And when they placed this in the corridor, it still hadn’t reached the cell, the reason was because we used to shout, ‘we don’t want to eat, take it back, take it back, we are on a hunger strike today’. There were some soups but they were always made with pork, so I couldn’t eat it. I should express my gratitude to Fatima Tekayva (the mother of former Guantanamo detainee, Rasul Kudayev) who visited all seven of us in this prison every fortnight, and she was passing food to us, and thanks to her, I didn’t die of starvation. With regards to torture in the prison, it is normal practice to torture the prisoner in Russia. Of course it is prohibited by law, nevertheless the last time we were not tortured but only because they didn’t want to. If they wanted to, they would have tortured us. Somehow they lost interest in us. Now they are quite interested Rasul, and that’s why they are torturing him big time.
I am smiling here (referring to a photo of Airat on the Cageprisoners website) because my imprisonment was extended for another 2 months in the court hearing, that’s why I am smiling. And that’s when I was photographed by the media, and I didn’t want them to see me upset so that’s why I am smiling. They were applauding “Oh, he’s posing for us, he’s posing for us”.
CP: When did you first get to see and speak to your family? Can you describe your first reunion with your family?
AV: I have to say first of all that you have to understand who we were when we were released. We were a complete pack of nerves and surprised: why we don’t have the guards shouting all the time, saying “Come on, come on we have to do something” or why we don’t have the guards watching us from somewhere, why don’t we have people watching us all the time. Therefore I did feel uncomfortable when I was released. I couldn’t spend my time in the company of more than three people, I thought that was already too much and I had to run. I was looking for solitude, I was hiding away.
My psychological state was appalling because after four and a half years of being imprisoned, I’ve been in nine prisons in 4.5 years time…. They asked me to sign the papers of my release, they told me you’re going home now, I said “Where? Where is my house?” I completely forgot I had a home. I vividly remember the moment I was released, I had the bag in my hand, and I was going down a central road, and I suddenly realised I don’t know where I am going. But then the relatives of Timur Ishmuradov came and picked us up and took us home.
So when I came home and I saw my mum, she hadn’t touched anything of mine, she had left everything in its place and as I had left it four and a half years ago. She told me that she left it because she felt that was appropriate and when I would come back I would do whatever I want with my things. I embraced my mum and I stayed with her at home, and I had the feeling as though I had never left home.
CP: What do you feel are your obligations to those left behind?
AV: I think mostly, the whole world has to know what is happening in Guantanamo, especially the American people. I respect American people. I just consider that they don’t know the truth. When they realise what their Government is doing in their name, their Government has betrayed democracy, then next time they wouldn’t elect such Presidents like George Bush.
CP: Could you tell us about your recent re-arrest? On what basis were you arrested and what did you experience whilst in custody?
AV: My recent arrest was directly connected to my statement I had made during the press conference that the corrupt special forces of Russia decided to act on the order from the Americans to arrest me. My friend and I, Rustam, were detained and I thought they were going to kill us. But I managed to make one call and I considered this call had saved my life. First of all I would like to express my gratitude to Allah for saving my life, secondly to Alexandria Vernova; thirdly towards the journalists who made the huge noise in the media about this; and then the Prosecutors Office of Tartan Republic where they took us had no choice, they literally had no choice but to save our lives and not kill us. They were asking for some sort of evidence on us, they had nothing on us and that’s why they had to release us. Out of the 7 Russian detainees who have been released, I am number 6 who has been accused of terrorist activities. The majority of us have been kidnapped 3 or 4 times like for example Rasul Kudayev, I have been kidnapped only once…so I am kind of youngish.
CP: Can you comment on the Cageprisoners.com website?
AV: I can consider that you are unique. There are no other sites like this in the world. Unfortunately I do not know a lot of the people who work on this site, but I would like to express my gratitude to all of them. If you would allow us to consider it our site that would be great, I would consider it as an honour. I don’t normally think about Guantanamo detainees, but all illegally, unjustified detainees around the world. Your site is being frequently visited by Muslims in Russia: this is the place where people go if their rights have been violated.
CP: What advice can you offer to the families whose son’s are still detained?
AV: I would advise them to read Surah Yusuf, where it mentions the story of Prophet Yaqoob (as), the father of Yusuf, that he lost his sight because of his troubles. Yusuf (as) was unjustifiably made to be a slave and he spent 12 years in prison. Then he became a prisoner of Egypt. These people will become leaders in the future for the whole of mankind.
CP: And finally, do you have any messages for our readers?
AV: I’d like them to be more active with the site and we want you to have this reciprocity and connection with the readers.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)