Nurdin Sultanmamytov’s story began with an arrest by police in Kyrgyzstan. And then a second. And then another and another. Once he was abducted and detained for nineteen days. Before long he had been accused of a series of crimes, including robbery, theft, extortion of firearms, ammunition and explosives, unlawful seizure of a car, banditry, and kidnapping—all charges he denies.
Each time he was taken into custody, Sultanmamytov says he was tortured. He describes being seated on the floor with his legs outstretched, his hands cuffed behind his back, a gas mask forced onto his head. A police officer pulled on the mask while applying pressure to his handcuffed wrists. A second officer sat on Sultanmamytov’s lap and poured vinegar into the mask’s hose. Sultanmamytov lost consciousness several times, but he refused to sign a confession. This went on for three days.
Then, after almost three months in quarantine, Sultanmamytov was released—only to be arrested again, accused of involvement in a criminal organization. He was tortured again. Still he refused to confess. He was tried, acquitted, and released.
The widespread use of torture in Kyrgyzstan is well known—a special rapporteur on torture recently visited the country and noted that the situation is deteriorating, “intensified by the turbulence of the past two years with the ousting of President Bakiev in April 2010.” But Sultanmamytov’s case was about to move beyond the everyday mistreatment endemic to Kyrgyz criminal justice and illustrate a larger international problem—a problem few want to talk about.
After being exonerated by the court, Sultanmamytov fled to Russia, where he applied for asylum. But despite his explicit concern about further torture, his application for refugee status was declined. Sultanmamytov appealed, but the prosecutor of the Russian Federation upheld the decision to extradite him back to Kyrgyzstan.
At this stage, because of growing international concern about extraditions from Russia to countries where people face the risk of ill-treatment, the UN Human Rights Committee intervened. It requested that Sultanmamytov’s case be put on hold to give it time to review. Russia ignored the request.
In August 2012, Russia shipped Sultanmamytov back to Kyrgyzstan. Immediately upon his arrival, Sultanmamytov was taken into custody, where he was subjected to physical abuses by the head of the temporary detention center.
Sultanmamytov’s story is unusual only in that it is public. We know what happened to him because two NGOs, Human Rights Institute in Russia and Kylym Shamy in Kyrgyzstan, got wind of his case. His story offers a rare glimpse of a growing practice where asylum seekers face extradition back to countries where they face a serious risk of torture. Russia isn’t the only culprit, but a recent report from Amnesty International underscores its place in the trend. “This strategy is being employed with increasing frequency by CIS countries, signaling an alarming trend whereby governments openly violate fundamental human rights protections with impunity and justify such abuses by invoking threats to national security.”
International law is clear. The principle of non-refoulement forbids the forcible transfer of people to any country or territory, or any other place, where they face a real risk of serious human rights violations or abuses—meaning torture or other ill-treatment, extrajudicial execution or enforced disappearance. Non-refoulement is the cornerstone of international refugee law and is well established in international human rights law.
In a functioning system, the risk of torture is assessed at the moment of extradition. But many states violate their duty to consider the situation of the person they are sending away. Like Sultanmamytov, many subjected to extradition are sent back even if they are clearly at risk. Domestic and international courts wrestle with these decisions, often getting them wrong. And in many cases, there is insufficient monitoring after extradition. After the person is gone, often there is nothing but silence.
A number of recent decisions from the European Court of Human Rights—including Jermakov vs. Russia and Kasymahunov vs Russia—have called on Russia to stop the illegal practice of returning detainees to torture, so far to no avail. The Amnesty report stresses the need to address extradition to Central Asia in particular: “In the last few years alone, the European Court of Human Rights has issued several such rulings expressly concluding that returnees … would face a real risk of torture if returned to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.”
It’s worth noting that INTERPOL has also employed an insufficiently careful approach to certain extradition cases. According to the recent report by the organization Fair Trails International, torture is an area where the INTERPOL lacks experience to deal with cases when evidence is obtained by torture. The report notes how “no legal system based upon the rule of law can countenance the admission of evidence—however reliable—which has been obtained by such a barbaric practice as torture. If a person were able to establish this, there should be no question of INTERPOL’s systems being used to secure the return of a person convicted on that basis.” Too often, evidence secured during torture can condemn people to return to countries where they are at risk of further abuse.
Until states and international agencies accept responsibility for the safety of those facing extradition, stories like Nurdin Sultanmamytov’s will remain unacceptably common.