One-third of former prisoners sent to third countries are lacking legal status – unable to work or travel and at risk of human rights abuses
Last modified on Sun 9 Jan 2022 14.29 EST
About 30% of former Guantánamo detainees who were resettled in third countries have not been granted legal status, according to new analysis shared exclusively with the Guardian, leaving them vulnerable to deportation and restricting their ability to rebuild their lives.
Of the hundreds of men released from Guantánamo since the prison first opened 20 years ago, about 150 were sent to third countries in bilateral agreements brokered by the US, because their home countries were considered dangerous to return to.
Publicly, the US committed to transferring them in a humane way that would ensure rehabilitation after years of incarceration – and, in many cases, torture – without charge. But many remain in legal limbo, unable to work or reunite with their families, and have been subject to years of detention. Others have been forcibly returned to dangerous conditions.
The new data was produced by the human rights organization Reprieve, which assists former detainees, and illustrates how the lawlessness that has marked the prison from the beginning can follow men years after their release. The analysis indicates that approximately 45 men have not been given residency documents upon resettlement.
Ravil Mingazov was held at Guantánamo for more than 14 years before being transferred to the United Arab Emirates on the last day of the Obama administration. A Muslim Tatar from Russia who had been harassed by authorities because of his religion, he feared returning home, where UN human rights experts warned he could face torture. He was assured he would live freely in the UAE after a short stint in a rehabilitation facility. Instead, he has been held in solitary confinement and severely mistreated, according to his family and attorneys.
His 23-year-old son, Yusuf Mingazov, spoke to the Guardian from his home in London. “I’m not saying that Guantánamo is a good place. It’s one of the worst places in the world, one of the worst prisons. But comparing to UAE right now, it’s a nice place.”
Last year, fears of forced repatriation mounted after Russian authorities visited Ravil’s mother in Tatarstan to produce travel documents. Monitored phone calls to relatives ground to a halt. A UN opinion has likened Mingazov’s case to incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance, holding both the US and the UAE responsible. A state department spokesperson said that concerns regarding the case had been raised with the UAE government.
Martina Burtscher, a caseworker with Reprieve, said that addressing the needs of former detainees became much harder when the Trump administration eliminated a state department office dedicated to closing Guantánamo. That office had been led by a special envoy charged with finding solutions for the men who remained and monitoring the conditions of those resettled.
Without the office, there was no way to press host governments, who now “had a free hand” to do what they wanted with the men, said Burtscher. “Who do you call in the state department to try to ensure that there is a follow-up? You can go to the US embassy in the host country, which I tried to do in several locations. The answers were largely the same: ‘It’s not our problem any more. The men are now at the [mercy] of their host countries, and we are sure that their human rights are being met.’”
For many former detainees, that was not the case. The UAE has deported 22 other men to their home countries, Yemen and Afghanistan. One of the Yemeni men is being held by a militia group; one of the Afghan men died from “torture, mistreatment and medical neglect both at Guantánamo and in the UAE”, according to a UN report. In 2018, Senegal forcibly repatriated two men to Libya, where they were detained by militia. They have since been released but remain “vulnerable to re-detention”, according to Reprieve.
Other ex-detainees may be nominally free in host countries, but without documentation, they often can’t work, travel or see their families. Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni man sent to Serbia in 2016, has complained of persistent surveillance and other restrictions, calling post-detention life “Guantánamo 2.0”.
The state department spokesperson said that the government registers its concerns with host countries when it is not clear ex-detainees are being treated humanely.
The Biden administration has not re-established the special envoy role for closing Guantánamo. Only one person has so far been released under Biden, to his native Morocco, and 13 detainees are eligible for transfer.
Ambassador Daniel Fried, the special envoy during Obama’s first term, said monitoring the progress of resettled detainees was a central part of the job. “We knew the status of every third-country transfer. I knew the one who got married and where he worked and who his wife was,” he said.
“There are some problems of Guantánamo that will never go away,” Fried continued. “The way you deal with that is to step up and make sure that the people that were there – if you found them eligible for transfer – are given the support they need.”