The mother of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee waited anxiously at her home in Russia last weekend, expecting to hear heart-stopping news about her son Ravil Mingazov, who has been imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates since his release from Guantánamo six years ago.
In recent weeks, 87-year-old Zuhra Valiullina has grown convinced that something even worse could soon happen to Mingazov: He might be forced back to Russia, the country he fled after being persecuted for his Muslim faith.
As all but 30 prisoners from Guantánamo Bay have been released, the notorious detention center has faded from the headlines. But Mingazov’s case — fraught with geopolitics — has drawn an unusual level of public attention. A former Russian soldier and ballet dancer, he fled Russia in 1999 in search of a place where he and his family could live and practice their faith freely. He was picked up in a raid in Pakistan in early 2002, when the U.S. was paying bounty for suspects, according to Gary Thompson, Mingazov’s lawyer. Wrongly suspected of being a foreign fighter, Mingazov was handed over to U.S. forces, held and tortured at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and later transferred to Guantánamo, where he was never charged and should have never been, Thompson said.
During the Obama administration, Mingazov became one of 23 former detainees, most originally from Yemen, who were sent to the United Arab Emirates under a confidential diplomatic agreement with the U.S. State Department. The assurances contained in the secret diplomatic deal allegedly included provisions against being returned to a country where they would face torture, punishment, or irreparable harm. Mingazov told his family that he would attend a six-month residential rehabilitation program in the UAE before being released into Emirati society to restart his life as a free man. Instead, he has been held in extremely restrictive solitary confinement for nearly seven years in the United Arab Emirates, Valiullina told The Intercept.
Two months ago, Valiullina received a rare invitation to travel to the UAE to see her son. It was only the second time she had been allowed to visit him since he arrived there in January 2017, she said. During the August visit, an Emirati official told Valiullina that her son was “free to go” but that only Russia was willing to issue him a passport and accept him on its soil. The official said that her son would need to sign documents that would trigger his repatriation to Russia; the documents, along with assurances that he “would not be persecuted” once back in Russia, would be delivered by Russian Ambassador to the UAE Timur Zabirov on September 23.
The ambassador apparently didn’t show up on that day, but Valiullina and her grandson Yusuf, Mingazov’s only son, fear he could arrive anytime.
“Russia poses a life-threatening danger to my father,” Yusuf told The Intercept. “I implore the authorities in the U.S. and U.K. to intervene and cease the ongoing suffering that he is enduring unjustly.”
Zabirov did not respond to a request for comment emailed to the Russian Embassy in the UAE.
In September, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, issued a dire warning against returning Mingazov to Russia, saying that his forcible repatriation would be a clear violation of international human rights law. “We call on the Governments involved to observe their international obligations, honour the diplomatic assurances provided for resettlement, and take into account the substantiated risks to Mr. Mingazov’s physical and moral integrity, if repatriated against his will,” the U.N. experts said.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights Fionnuala Ní Aoláin called for the Biden administration to intervene, citing the UAE’s previous failures to make good on alleged assurances about Mingazov’s safety. “It’s deeply concerning that an assurance given to the United States appears to be broken without consequence,” Ní Aoláin said in an exclusive interview with The Intercept. “We need a White House, a high-level political intervention. It appears no one is willing to expend that political energy on a former Guantánamo detainee.”
Advocacy groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights, CAGE, and the OHCHR have long campaigned to free Mingazov from detention and prevent his repatriation to Russia. Since 2021, protesters have taken to the street outside the UAE Embassy in Washington to demand his release, most recently last month. There’s even been a petition by members of Parliament in the United Kingdom to bring Mingazov to London to reunite with his ex-wife and Yusuf, both of whom were granted asylum there in 2014.
Last week, Valiullina sent her other son, Mingazov’s older brother, to the UAE to try to intercept the Russian ambassador. She instructed him to rip up any documents provided by Russia. “We don’t believe the Russians at all on this,” she told The Intercept. (The older brother could not be reached for comment.)
Ravil Mingavoz, right, with his 87-year-old mother Zuhra Valiullina and older brother at a prison visitation room outside Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in early August 2023.
Photo: Courtesy of Yusuf Mingazov
A Harrowing Ordeal
In August, at a prison about 125 miles outside of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Valiullina wept when she watched her son arrive with a blindfold over his face, his hands and feet shackled and chained. He had aged rapidly since she had last seen him three years earlier. For the first time, Mingazov was complaining of health issues that were going untreated, she said. The former dancer who performed with the Russian army ballet troupe was now shockingly thin, and his hair had gone completely gray. At one point, she was told that her son could leave anytime but that none of the many countries that had been approached to take him had agreed — except Russia. Disturbed, Valiullina reported these developments to Thompson.
“It’s bizarre that at this point the UAE would say to the mother, ‘Well, Ravil is free to go but he doesn’t have a passport. We’ll have to send him back to Russia then,’” Thompson said. “I mean, it makes no sense. It seems to be a deliberate pretext for the UAE to articulate why they’re sending him to Russia when they know they can’t — they know they promised our State Department they would never do that.”
Thompson says he never saw this coming. The UAE, a key U.S. ally, was supposed to be an end to Mingazov’s harrowing ordeal. Mingazov was thrilled, Thompson said, that he would finally get to live freely in a Muslim-majority country. Instead, his imprisonment was so horrific that he described it as torture in a 2021 phone call to his son. Yusuf recalled his father on the verge of tears, begging for a lawyer. As soon as he said this, the call was abruptly cut off, Yusuf said. It was the last call Mingazov was allowed to make to his son. Now the only person who receives any direct communication from Emirati officials is Mingazov’s elderly mother.
Thompson has not been allowed to speak with his client since Mingazov was released from Guantánamo. Incredibly, Thompson said he must rely completely on Valiullina, who only speaks Russian, to provide him with updates about his client. Valiullina receives her information from a UAE official who she knows only as “Ahmed” and who speaks “broken Russian,” according to Yusuf.
Why the UAE imprisoned the former Guantánamo detainees sent by there by the State Department is a mystery to Thompson. “It just doesn’t make sense why they kept anybody in prison — including the Yemenis. Why don’t they just do what they said they would do? Release him into Emirati society, give him a job, let him live a normal life the same way that many former detainees have in other countries they’ve been sent to in situations where they can’t go home?” Of the 23 former Guantánamo prisoners sent to the UAE, at least 20 were imprisoned there until their repatriation, according to the Associated Press. The Intercept has previously reported on the UAE’s forced repatriation of one of those former detainees, after he was held without access to a lawyer for five years.
“Mr. Mingazov is a twice victim of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. Once while rendered and tortured by the United States at Guantánamo Bay Cuba, and twice while transferred to the UAE by the United States,” Ní Aoláin said. “It is inconceivable that he would be made a triple victim of torture while the United States stands idly on the sidelines.”
Lawyer Gary Thompson, right, and activists protested Ravil Mingazov’s detention and threat of repatriation to Russia and called on the U.K. to grant asylum at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18, 2023.
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Thompson
“There’s Always a Chance”
While the UAE has proved to be a catastrophic resettlement option for Guantánamo prisoners, Russia would be even worse, Mingazov’s family says. Seven former Guantánamo detainees repatriated to Russia in 2004 were imprisoned again, tortured, and released, only to face harassment, abuse, persecution, and even death at the hands of Russian authorities, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. The U.N. experts noted that Mingazov himself has always feared being returned to Russia, writing that “Ravil Mingazov consistently and vociferously demonstrated and raised his fear of irreparable harm if repatriated to the Russian Federation.”
While Mingazov languished in Guantánamo Bay, legal advocates warned against his repatriation to Russia. The Center for Constitutional Rights wrote in 2009 that he “cannot safely return to his home country because of the risk of torture or persecution. Russia is notorious for its persecution of Muslims and for torture and abuse in its prisons.”
“The diplomatic assurances given to the United States by their allies regarding the treatment of former Guantánamo detainees appear not to be worth the paper they are written on,” Ní Aoláin told The Intercept. “If diplomatic assurances mean anything, they mean that you do not transfer a torture victim to a state where he is at risk of harm. If this is true of U.S. citizens currently detained in Russia, it is equally true of former U.S. detainees who would be transferred there.”
“It’s like Vladimir Putin saying, ‘Trust me,’” Thompson told The Intercept. “It’s just not happening.”
Thompson said he has not heard back from the State Department on what, if anything, is being done to stop this new threat of transfer; his repeated attempts to contact the UAE ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, likewise have gone unanswered. Otaiba did not respond to detailed questions from The Intercept about Mingazov’s detention.
U.S. Bureau of Counterterrorism spokesperson Vincent Picard declined to comment on the terms of the U.S. government’s agreement with the UAE regarding Mingazov’s resettlement or on what is happening with his case now. “Broadly speaking, the U.S. government registers its concern when it is unclear that a former detainee is being treated in a humane manner, and we remain in contact with governments to ensure they uphold their commitments and are prepared to address any issues through appropriate channels,” Picard told The Intercept. “The U.S. government remains interested in ensuring that former detainees are treated in a humane manner and that efforts are undertaken to rehabilitate and integrate them into local communities.”
Yusuf has tried for years to bring his father to the United Kingdom. In 2015, he asked the British Home Office to transfer Mingazov to the U.K. from Guantánamo, but the appeal was denied. With the threat of Russian repatriation looming, some British lawmakers are trying to reunite Yusuf with his father, or at the very least, urgently meet with UAE officials to stop Mingazov’s repatriation to Russia.
“The lack of clarity on this situation is incredibly frustrating,” U.K. member of Parliament Apsana Begum, one of several MPs who called on the country’s home secretary to approve Mingazov’s application for asylum in the U.K., told The Intercept. “The U.K. has to take responsibility for their role in circumstances that have led to a man — who has not been convicted of any crime and is not deemed a risk to anyone’s security — spending the last decades imprisoned in unacceptable conditions. In the name of humanity, this awful injustice must end, and Ravil must be allowed to rebuild his life and recover from the ordeals that he has suffered.”
After all these years, Valiullina’s dream is for her son to be reunited with Yusuf.
“There’s always a chance,” Yusuf said. “My goal is to do everything in my power to see my father’s swift release so that he can begin anew and have a joyful life amongst his loved ones.”
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