By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
MOSCOW — Looking at a map of the world, it's hard to find Airat Vakhitov's hometown in the Russian province of Tatarstan.
Describing the place only makes it sound more obscure: the city of Naberezhnye Chelny on the Kama River.
Many of the former Guantanamo detainees whom McClatchy interviewed fit the stereotype, more or less, of al Qaida combatants: Arabs with close ties to radical Islamic groups who traveled to Afghanistan just before or after Sept. 11, 2001. Many others, however, seem to have appeared out of nowhere.
The long, strange case of Airat Vakhitov, for example, is a swirl of Russian politics, separatist Uzbek Islamic guerrillas, Tajik soldiers, Taliban prisons and American troops.
Because he worried that Russian officials would detain and torture him if a Western journalist were seen going to his house in Tatarstan, Vakhitov agreed to be interviewed only by phone. His voice was steady during most of the three-and-a-half-hour conversation, but it dropped to a mumble when he was asked about the hard times, the times when his sanity began to fade.
Vakhitov said that his journey to Guantanamo began when he was 22. The second Chechen war had begun, newly elected Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was on the ascent in Russian politics and his vow to crush Muslim rebels in Chechnya, whom the Russian government blamed for killing some 300 people in a series of apartment bombings, catapulted him to wide popularity with the Russian electorate.
The crackdown extended to other provinces in Russia with significant Muslim populations, including Tatarstan. Vakhitov, a religious leader at a local mosque, was jailed for two months and charged with being a member of an illegal militia. He was released as a goodwill gesture during legislative elections, but the day after the balloting, police came to his mother's house, looking for him.
Realizing that he'd soon be arrested again, Vakhitov said, he fled to Tajikistan to stay with relatives.
While he was in the mountains there in June 2000, he claimed, he was kidnapped by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization.
Vakhitov is vague about what he was doing in the mountains and how he, a man who Russian authorities said was part of a radical Islamist group, came to be kidnapped by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The movement was operating in the area where Vakhitov was at the time, and it's well established that the group took hostages. Several other Guantanamo detainees, from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, also claim that the group kidnapped them.
After a pact between the Tajik government and the movement, Vakhitov claimed, Tajik troops escorted the Islamic fighters to Afghanistan. So, by his account, Vakhitov was flown to Afghanistan in the summer of 2000 in an old Soviet Mi-6 transport helicopter.
Asked why he didn't tell the Tajik troops that he was a hostage, that he wasn't a fighter loyal to the Islamic movement, Vakhitov said, "I was terribly intimidated. I didn't know who was who. . . . I didn't know who to talk to."
His attorney, Alexandra Zernova, said she never verified his story.
"We were not looking for evidence that corroborated his story because we had no doubt that it was truthful," she said. "I never even thought to question it."
It wasn't possible to verify his account of how he got to Afghanistan. Vakhitov didn't have a tribunal hearing at Guantanamo, so there's no transcript to compare with his account.
In 2004, the Russian government released a statement saying that Vakhitov was among a group of Russians "recruited by representatives of radical Islamic organizations and later sent over to Afghanistan, where they fought on the side of the Taliban."
The Russian Interior and Justice ministries declined to be interviewed about Vakhitov and his background. Told that Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with Russian detainees, supported many of Vakhitov's assertions, a spokesman at the Interior Ministry replied, "So what?"
Wahid Mojdeh, a former Taliban diplomat, laughed when he heard Vakhitov's kidnapping story, and said it was ridiculous.
Mojdeh said that the only instance of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan keeping prisoners in Kabul was when its members had a dispute about splitting up the money they got from the Japanese government when they freed four kidnapped Japanese geologists and started kidnapping one another.
"I went to their house often; there were a lot of Chechens and Kazakhs, speaking Russian, and none of them had been kidnapped," Mojdeh said.