UN human rights experts, including Nils Melzer, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, condemned the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for its proposals to repatriate Ravil Mingazov, a former Guantánamo prisoner who was sent to the UAE from Guantánamo in January 2017, just before President Obama left office.
Despite what the experts describe as “informal assurances guaranteeing his release into Emirati society after undergoing a short-term rehabilitation programme,” Mingazov — and 22 other former prisoners (18 Yemenis and four Afghans), who were sent to the UAE from Guantánamo between November 2015 and January 2017 — found that, on their arrival in the UAE, the assurances evaporated, and they have instead been “subjected to continuous arbitrary detention at an undisclosed location in the UAE, which amounts to enforced disappearance.”
The only exceptions to this continued pattern of “arbitrary detention” and “enforced disappearance” are three of the Afghans, who, after suffering the same disgraceful treatment, were repatriated as a result of peace negotiations in Afghanistan involving the Afghan government and Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), a militant group that had supported al-Qaeda at the time of the US-led invasion of 2001, but that reached a peace deal with the Afghan government in 2016.
The UAE prisoner scandal was first exposed by the Washington Post in May 2018, and I wrote about it at the time in an article entitled, “Guantánamo Scandal: The Released Prisoners Languishing in Secretive Detention in the UAE.” As I also explained, I “never followed up on it publicly, because the consensus amongst lawyers and NGOs seemed to be that the UAE would respond very badly to media criticism, and that it would be much better to try and persuade them to honor their promises to help the former prisoners rather than punishing them via international bodies like the United Nations.”
By the summer of 2020, however, it seemed, as I wrote in an article last October, that “everyone’s patience ha[d] run out.” As I explained, “The UN started the ball rolling in July, sending a letter to the Emirati authorities decrying the treatment of 20 of the men transferred to the UAE from Guantánamo,” including Mingazov, whose proposed repatriation had already been flagged up. In October, the UN experts again condemned the UAE for proposals to repatriate the Yemenis, stating that “their forced return put their lives at risk and violated international human rights and humanitarian law.”
This latest intervention by the UN experts comes in response to fears of Mingazov’s “imminent forced repatriation,” to face “substantial risk of torture and ill-treatment upon his return,” based, as they note, “on his religious beliefs.”
When Mingazov was approved for release from Guantánamo in 2016, his wife, son and other family members, who had resettled in the UK, unsuccessfully sought his release to the UK. I met his son a few years ago, and it was clear that the conditions in which his father was being held were completely unacceptable. He spoke of brief phone calls, which were abruptly terminated whenever his father tried to mention the deplorable conditions in which he was held. As the Guardian explains today, however, those conditions have not improved.
Nick Beales, who runs Reprieve’s secret prisons project, explained, “Ravil has been on hunger strike, and we’re aware that he’s being tortured, whilst detained in the UAE as well. He’s been held in solitary confinement for extended periods, and he’s suffered physical abuse at the hands of the guards detaining him.”
His sister-in-law, Sevil Kurbanova, who also lives in the UK, said, “All this time he has not once been allowed to see a doctor. There are no books, no Red Cross, he has nothing. Even when they are fasting they are not given a full cup of water or tea at night — just a quarter cup.”
Kurbanova also explained that, last month, “Russian officials visited Mingazov’s mother in Tatarstan to ask for documentation to help prepare new travel documents for him, signalling that he would be repatriated imminently.”
As the experts stated, in response to this latest development, “Any repatriation process happening without full respect for procedural guarantees, including an individualized risk assessment, would violate the absolute prohibition of refoulement.” They added that “[n]o official information has been shared with Mr. Mingazov or his family regarding the planned repatriation.”
The experts also reiterated their concerns about the other prisoners still held in what they described as “indefinite detention at an undisclosed location, without charge or trial, with extremely restricted family contact, no legal representation and recurrent periods of prolonged solitary confinement.” As they stated, “We repeat our call to the Emirati Government, to observe its international human rights obligations and refrain from forcibly repatriating detainees to their countries of origin where they may incur a risk of torture and ill-treatment. The Government should also stop violating the rights of detainees resettled in the UAE and order their immediate release and reunification with their families.”
Noticeably missing from discussions about the fate of the men sent to the UAE from Guantánamo is the government that sent them there in the first place — the US. For four years, current and former Guantánamo prisoners alike were shamefully abandoned by Donald Trump, but with Joe Biden now in the White House, it is his unswervable responsibility to deal with this humanitarian disaster in the UAE, by immediately appointing a Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure (a State Department position set up by Barack Obama, but shut down under Trump) to negotiate with the Emirati government.
In recent months, as Periodic Review Boards at Guantánamo have approved five men for release, the need for the role of the Envoy to be revived has become a pressing concern, as the role is absolutely crucial to securing the release of the men still held who have been approved for release (eleven in total, out of the 40 men still held). As the UAE prisoner scandal shows, however, it is not just those still held at Guantánamo who need the assistance of the US government to secure their release; it is also men whose resettlement in other countries, because they could not safely be repatriated, has ended up with them facing even more egregious human rights abuses than they suffered when they were at Guantánamo.
President Biden — and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken — must take action on behalf of these men, and they must act now.