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Former Guantanamo Detainee Dies in Kazakhstan

Asim Thabit Abdullah al-Khalaqi, a Yemeni accused of being a member of an elite guerilla force of al Qaeda, dies in Kazakhstan.
Photo by VICE News/Jason Leopold

A former Guantanamo detainee released in late 2014 has died in southern Kazakhstan.

Asim Thabit Abdullah al-Khalaqi, a Yemeni, was one of five detainees released from military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the United States in late December and resettled there under the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross, operating locally as Red Crescent. Al-Khalaqi was captured in Pakistan on December 30, 2001, and transferred to Guantanamo three weeks later, where the Department of Defense assessed him to be a member of al Qaeda, according to a DOD memoradum.


Al-Khalaqi, 47, was found unconscious in his apartment in Kyzylorda on May 7 and was brought to the hospital with suspected food poisoning. The autopsy later revealed that he died of kidney failure and showed he had a severe lung infection. In a photo taken at the hospital following his death, al-Khalaqi appears lying on a table, his body covered by a sheet and his jaw held closed by a chinstrap made of gauze, a procedure typically performed as a part of post-mortem care. Al-Khalaqi was overweight and suffered from gout, and frequently fell unconscious during his detention in Guantanamo, according to a fellow detainee now residing in Kazakhstan, whom VICE News reached through Skype.

"We know about how he gets," said Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lutfi, who was recommended for release in 2004 but ultimately held in Guantanamo for 12 years. "When we were in Guantanamo in Cuba, he would get into a coma. When he's in this state, the soldiers would come get him with a cart. So he needed close supervision." Al-Khalaqi lived alone in a sparsely furnished apartment in Kyzylorda and was frequently hospitalized since being resettled there, said al-Lutfi.

Al-Khalaqi's attorney, Ellis Johnston, a federal public defender in San Diego, declined to comment.

But Capt. Tom Gresback, a Guantanamo spokesman, told VICE News that every detainee receives a check-up before they are transferred.

"Every detainee is given a thorough health screening prior to transfer," Gresback said. "The detainee would not have been transferred if he failed the health screening."


Gresback also rejected any suggestion that al-Khalaqi didn't receive adequate medical care while he was held captive at Guantanamo. "All detainees receive the same medical care as the US Service men and women serving here," Gresback said. "The medical professionals serving at the detention facility at Guantanamo are the best United States medicine has to offer — bar none."

On December 31, 2014, the US released three Yemenis—including al-Khalaqi—and two Tunisians, from Guantanamo and transported them to Kazakhstan to be resettled. The releases came as a part of President Barack Obama's promise to close the prison. The Yemenis were brought to Kyzylorda, in the south of Kazakhstan, and the Tunisians to Semey, in the east. In cooperation with the Kazakh government, the local chapter of the ICRC is charged with the care of the former detainees, and provides healthcare, food stipends, language classes, and transport. Through the help of a translator, a fellow Yemeni detainee alerted them when al-Khalaqi fell ill in early May.

"The situation was very bad inside. When they entered, there was a bad stench because he couldn't go to the bathroom. He was in a really bad state," said al-Lutfi, who had spoken to al-Khalaqi via Skype just three days before he died. The two men had been discussing the challenges of integration.

"We talked about marriage the whole time in our last conversation," al-Lutfi said. "He said, 'Really Abdullah, I'm eating bread and potatoes to save up money so I could get married.'" Al-Khalaqi, whom al-Lutfi describes as a calligraphist and a poet, had written a poem about his living conditions days and read it to al-Lufti in their final conversation.


While the detainees are technically "free men" in Kazakhstan, the early terms of their freedom are unclear.

"The police used to come almost every day to the apartment. They would open the door and enter and check the place for a minute or two, then they would leave," said al-Lutfi, who says that the check-ups have become less frequent over time. "It's as if it's Guantanamo 2, to be honest."

During his detention in Guantanamo, al-Khalaqi was assessed to be working in the 55th Arab Brigade, an elite guerrilla force trained by al Qaeda and integrated into the Taliban, according to the DOD Memorandum published by WikiLeaks. John Walker Lindh, an American currently serving a 20-year sentence for fighting with the Taliban who was also captured in 2001, alleged that al-Khalaqi traveled with his group from Kandahar to the front lines at Bagram. Al-Khalaqi denied involvement. The memorandum stated that the reason for transfer to Guantanamo was to provide information on a "potential Taliban recruitment campaign." At that time, he was deemed to present "medium" intelligence value and medium threat to the United States, and in 2007 he was recommended for transfer out of Guantanamo.

Al-Khalaqi's body was buried in a local Muslim cemetery around 4pm on the Saturday following his death.

Additional reporting by Jason Leopold