Advertisement
VICE News

After Being Imprisoned at Guantanamo, Two Men Find Themselves Trapped in Kazakhstan

Despite having no connection to Kazakhstan, Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lutfi and Mohammed Ebrahim al Qurashi were sent to a remote city in the former Soviet republic after being released from Guantanamo. Now, they can't leave.

by Simon Ostrovsky
Oct 15 2015, 7:55pm

Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lutfi. (Photo by Claire Ward/VICE News)

In December 2014, two blindfolded Guantanamo detainees were led off of a US military flight and onto a frozen airfield in eastern Kazakhstan. Their American escorts removed the detainees' handcuffs, then debated replacing them with plastic zip ties before ultimately handing the men over to Kazakh soldiers unbound.

The Kazakhs gave the men winter coats and led them off the airfield and into their new lives in Semey, a city of about 300,000 people near the Russian border. After spending more than a decade in a US prison on the sweltering island of Cuba, the two men were, supposedly, free.

During the Cold War, the remoteness of the region around Semey led it to be selected as the site of more than 450 Soviet nuclear weapon tests that scarred the land and poisoned thousands. But the vast former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan is probably best known for having served as a destination for exiles like Fyodor Dostoyevsky in imperial Russia as well as assorted "enemies of the people" during the Soviet era.

Today, the country is once again a destination for undesirables thanks to an unlikely source — the US State Department.

Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lutfi, one of the two ex-detainees, sticks out in Semey. This is in part because he's a tall, bearded Tunisian who doesn't dress or look like the Kazakhs and ethnic Russians who populate the city. It is also because Kazakhstan is a militantly secular, nominally Muslim authoritarian regime that is terrified of an uprising led by violent Islamists.

The US government branded Bin Ali as just such an Islamist after the 9/11 attacks. He spent a total of 13 years imprisoned by the United States, mostly in Guantanamo, before the State Department sent him here, a place where Muslim holidays are barely observed and no one speaks Arabic. He is treated with suspicion by his appointed caretakers from the Red Crescent Society of Kazakhstan — the region's Red Cross — and he's monitored closely by the police. Both organizations have keys to his house and enter as they please, as VICE News discovered on a recent visit.

* * *

Bin Ali, also known as Abdul Mohammed Rahman, was arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the US government in 2002 or 2003. He was subsequently accused of being a member of a terrorist organization called the Tunisian Combat Group and al Qaeda, according to defense department documents released by Wikileaks.

Bin Ali denies America's accusations, and no evidence to back them up has ever been made public. Like most people imprisoned at Guantanamo, he was never afforded a trial.

Today, the Obama administration wants to shut down the detention facility. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to restore habeas corpus for prisoners. Now, close to the end of Obama's second term, 114 detainees still remain at Guantanamo.

Few countries accept detainees; the ones that do have established quid pro quo arrangements with the US that are shrouded in secrecy. Kazakhstan has accepted five former prisoners, including Bin Ali — though one died within months of arriving of kidney failure, according to official accounts. By the time of his death, many of the detainees had already developed their own theories about why the US had decided to banish them to Kazakhstan.

VICE News talks to Bin Ali in 'Life After Guantanamo: Exiled in Kazakhstan.'

"There are four of us [left]," Bin Ali told VICE News in May. "But God knows, one or two or all of us might die soon. God only knows."

After years of detention that in some cases allegedly involved torture, most ex-detainees have serious health issues. Bin Ali entered US custody with a pre-existing heart condition for which he'd been fitted with an artificial heart valve in the late 1990s. His poor health is part of the reason he was deemed by the Defense Department to be "low risk," and recommended for release or transfer to another country in 2004. He then languished in Guantanamo for 10 more years while the Defense Department debated what to do with him.

Bin Ali said he isn't happy in Semey. He worries that he's not receiving adequate health care and that he won't be able to make a life for himself in the city. He complained about the assistance he receives from the Red Crescent and expects more from the US government after imprisoning him for so long.

But the head of the Red Crescent office in Semey, a woman named Alfiya Meshina who is charged with his care, said Bin Ali is better off than many locals.

"We have so many poor and elderly people, so many large families that live much worse than he does," she said. "What is he, a national hero of Kazakhstan? Why should he enjoy special treatment and privileges?"

When Bin Ali tried to interject with a complaint about his health, Meshina cut him off:

"I don't want to listen to this bullshit about his health problems. Since he arrived here on the 31st of December last year and until today, all we have been doing is taking care of his health."

Related: These Are the 6 US Prisons That May Soon House Guantanamo Detainees

Bin Ali's American lawyer, Mark Denbeaux, said Guantanamo was a public relations exercise gone wrong, meant to show the American people that the war on terror was being won in the months following the 9/11 attacks.

"First we took them, then we broke them, now we're throwing them away," he said.

The United States would rather portray Bin Ali's resettlement to Kazakhstan as a humanitarian act, not a clean-up operation. The State Department's Office of Guantanamo Closure refused to give VICE News an interview, but sent a statement that said the US was "grateful to our partner, Kazakhstan, for this significant humanitarian gesture, and appreciates the generous assistance of the Kazakhstani government as the United States continues its efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo."

* * *

On normal days, Bin Ali reports to Russian language lessons, visits the local mosque and market, or goes to the Red Crescent office to pick up medication. He complained, however, that security forces are never far behind, and said that police often walk into his apartment unannounced.

Former detainees are also under travel restrictions and cannot leave Semey, the Red Crescent says, citing a bilateral agreement between the United States and Kazakhstan that regulates the government's relationship with them.

"He's not a private citizen," Meshina said. "In this country, in Kazakhstan, he's the recipient of the project 'Adaptation of refugees in the republic of Kazakhstan.' Actually, he's not a refugee. He doesn't have any status."

Meshina refused to share details of the agreement, which she said she had copies of. The Red Cross in Geneva (ICRC) denied it had any knowledge of the contents of the document and said it played no role beyond funding the program for the ex-detainees and arranging family visits.

"These individuals are not under our care, and we would suggest also not under the care of the Kazakh Red Crescent Society in the sense of having responsibility for their status; however, we are attentive to their situation and wish for them to be well adapted in their new countries," the ICRC statement read.

But 10 months into Bin Ali's new life in the central Asian republic, the government has not issued him with any personal identification documents, making it impossible for him to manage any of his affairs himself. Every decision has to be approved and carried out by the staff of the Red Crescent, despite what the ICRC said.

A second ex-detainee brought to Semey, a Yemeni man named Mohammed Ebrahim al Qurashi, reported similar treatment.

"I'm not free," he told us. "I'm in this room 24 hours a day. I don't go out, and I don't know anyone."

A representative of the Red Crescent came to check up on Qurashi during our interview. Minutes later, police also arrived to see what was going on. It appeared as though the local branch of the Red Crescent, a humanitarian organization, was coordinating with the security forces.

Bin Ali said he was hopeful that eventually he would be allowed to move to one of the more cosmopolitan cities of Kazakhstan where he could blend in more easily and get better health care. Perhaps he might even be allowed to leave the country one day to return to his native Tunisia.

"This is the simplest they could do after 12 years of torture," he said. "This is the least of my rights. Put me in a place with healthcare."

Bin Ali sees doctors regularly, but much of what he says about his symptoms is lost in translation; there are no Arabic speakers available to interpret. It became clear during a follow-up visit to a cardiologist where an Arabic speaker was present that Bin Ali was long-overdue for an appointment with a specialist in heart valves. There are none in Semey, and Bin Ali is not allowed to leave the city.

Related: Accused of Enabling Torture, a US Military Psychologist Says He Was Doing the Opposite

The same 2004 Department of Defense report that recommended Bin Ali's release also said that without close monitoring, the state of his health was "extremely dangerous in the setting of a mechanical heart valve."

In an email to Bin Ali's lawyer, the State Department said it was trying to address some of his concerns, but that he needs to realize Kazakhstan isn't Western Europe.

"We would like it if he chose to build a life in Kazakhstan," the email concluded.

Follow Simon Ostrovsky on Twitter: @SimonOstrovsky