Former Guantánamo Prisoner Asim Al-Khalaqi Dies in Kazakhstan, Four Months After Being Freed

23.5.15

The US flag at Guantanamo (Photo: Ryan J. Reilly/Huffington Post).Vice News broke the news on Thursday that Asim Thabit Abdullah al-Khalaqi, a Yemeni, and a former prisoner at Guantánamo, died in Kazakhstan, just over four months since he was freed, after spending 13 years in US custody without charge or trial.

The 46- or 47-year old, identified in Guantánamo as ISN 152, was one of five men freed on December 31, 2014, 13 years and one day after his capture, on December 30, 2001, in Pakistan. Three weeks later, he was flown to Guantánamo, less than two weeks after the prison opened.

As I explained in an article in 2012, entitled, “Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago,” al-Khalaqi was approved for release under President Bush, as well as by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009:

In the classified US military files relating to the Guantánamo prisoners, which were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, al-Khalaqi’s file was a “Recommendation for Transfer Out of DoD Control (TRO),” dated January 1, 2007. A transfer recommendation (for “transfer with conditions”) was also made after his Administrative Review Board Round Three, on August 20, 2007 (PDF, p. 159).

As I also explained in 2010:

As described in The Guantánamo Files, al-Khalaqi stated that he “went to Pakistan with a friend to preach with Jamaat-al-Tablighi, but decided to go to Afghanistan after discovering that there were too many Tablighi representatives in Pakistan. He explained that he and his friend were successful in their mission, but everything changed after 9/11, when his friend ‘went one day to go eat lunch and didn’t return home.’ He then met an Afghan, who advised him to leave because Arabs were being killed, and explained that this man took him in his car to the foothills where he joined a group of Arabs crossing the mountains to Pakistan and handed himself in to the army on arrival.” The US authorities allege[d] that he undertook military training and was on the front lines at Bagram.

As Vice News explained, he was resettled in Kazakhstan — because the entire US establishment refuses to contemplate releasing Yemenis in their home country because of security fears — “under the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross, operating locally as [the] Red Crescent.”

Vice News also explained that al-Khalaqi “was found unconscious in his apartment in Kyzylorda on May 7 and was brought to the hospital with suspected food poisoning,” although an autopsy “later revealed that he died of kidney failure and showed he had a severe lung infection.”

The article added that he “was overweight and suffered from gout, and frequently fell unconscious during his detention in Guantánamo,” according to Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lutfi, a Tunisian and another former prisoner released in Kazakhstan in December, who was also identified in Guantánamo as Mohammed Abdul Rahman or Lotfi bin Ali (ISN 894), and had first been approved for release in 2004.

“We know about how he gets,” al-Lutfi said, adding, “When we were in Guantánamo 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-Lutfi also explained that al-Khalaqi “lived alone in a sparsely furnished apartment in Kyzylorda and was frequently hospitalized since being resettled there.”

Vice News added that, when the five men — three Yemenis and two Tunisians — were released in Kazakhstan, “The Yemenis were brought to Kyzylorda, in the south of Kazakhstan, and the Tunisians to Semey, in the east.” The author of the article, Claire Ward, also stated that, via an agreement with the Kazakh government, the local chapter of the Red Cross (the Red Crescent) looks after the former prisoners, providing “healthcare, food stipends, language classes, and transport.”

The ICRC had been alerted by one of the other Yemenis in early May, when al-Khalaqi fell ill. Al-Lutfi explained, “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.”

Al-Lutfi said he “had spoken to al-Khalaqi via Skype just three days before he died,” as Vice News put it, explaining that they “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.'” He described al-Khalaqi as “a calligraphist and a poet,” pointing out that he “had written a poem about his living conditions … and read it to al-Lufti in their final conversation.”

As Vice News also explained, although the former prisoners “are technically ‘free men‘ in Kazakhstan,” the exact details of the arrangement for their resettlement is unclear.

Al-Lutfi said that, initially, “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.” He acknowledged that “the check-ups have become less frequent over time,” as Vice News put it, but the insensitivity of the police was clearly a cause of distress. “It’s as if it’s Guantánamo 2, to be honest,” al-Lutfi said.

Vice News also stated that al-Khalaqi’s body “was buried in a local Muslim cemetery around 4pm on the Saturday following his death.”

In response to a request for a comment, Capt. Tom Gresback, a Guantánamo spokesman, told Vice News, “Every detainee is given a thorough health screening prior to transfer,” adding, “The detainee would not have been transferred if he failed the health screening.” He also “rejected any suggestion that al-Khalaqi didn’t receive adequate medical care while he was held captive at Guantánamo,” as Vice News put it. “All detainees receive the same medical care as the US Service men and women serving here,” he said, adding, “The medical professionals serving at the detention facility at Guantánamo are the best United States medicine has to offer — bar none.”

Another former prisoner who knew him, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian released in Uruguay at the start of December, told the Guardian that al-Khalaqi died on 7 May of kidney failure, as “a consequence of his years in Guantánamo and the lack of proper healthcare both in the prison and in Kazakhstan.”

His lawyer, Ellis Johnston, a public defender in San Diego, could not be reached for comment, but his death was confirmed by both the Pentagon and the State Department on Friday.

Dhiab, who, as the Guardian put it, “kept in touch” with al-Khalaqi after the two men were released, “blamed the long internment for his friend’s death.” Noting his friend’s chronic gout, he said, “He repeatedly requested health attention through his lawyer, but after a few medical checks he was told he was fine.”

Another Guantánamo spokesman, Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, denied Dhiab’s claim, in comments that were almost identical to those made by Capt. Tom Gresback. “All detainees have access to the same outstanding medical care as the US service members serving at Guantánamo, and are given a thorough health screening prior to transfer,” he said, adding, “Mr. al-Khalaqi would not have been transferred if he failed the health screening.”

The Guardian also spoke to Dr. Stephen Xenakis, who works on torture issues with Physicians for Human Rights, and who testified during Dhiab’s court case against the US last year, in which he sought to have a judge prevent his force-feeding as a hunger striker.

Xenakis, as the Guardian put it, “said a number of factors contribute to less than adequate care for inmates at Guantánamo, including limitations on resources and equipment, and a constantly rotating medical staff that is unable to provide continuity of care, essential for the ageing population at the prison.” He added, “Care providers there are more constrained and managed by the guards and authorities than they are in prisons in the US. It causes a lot of variation. So if a prisoner is liked, he may get the care he needs, and if not, the guards will intercede in a way and effectively deny the person what he needs.”

Dhiab also said that, in the weeks before his death, al-Khalaqi was unable to walk. “When Red Cross staff paid a visit to his home, he threw the keys through the window, so the visitors could open the door by themselves,” he said.

Dhiab also said, “We talked on Skype days before his death. He told me he wished to get married,” confirming al-Lutfi’s comments about his preoccupations in his dying days.

Dhiab also said that some of the former Guantánamo prisoners in Kazakhstan “were forbidden to attend the funeral” by the local authorities, as the Guardian put it. Dhiab said the authorities had cited “internal security concerns.”

Explicitly refuting the position taken by the spokesmen at Guantánamo regarding health screening, Dhiab said, “When a prisoner’s health becomes very fragile, the American military seek to release him as soon as possible to avoid the responsibility of a death in prison,” a position that I regard as accurate. In December 2013, for example, Ibrahim Idris, a Sudanese prisoner who was severely ill, was freed, and, as the Guardian noted, al-Khalaqi’s friend Abdullah Bin Ali al-Lutfi is also ill.

After explaining first of all that the conditions of imprisonment at Guantánamo have “badly affected the health of inmates, many of whom are said to suffer from prostate and eye diseases, high cholesterol and hypertension,” the Guardian pointed out that al-Lutfi, 49, regarded as the “most seriously ill” of the men sent to Kazakhstan, “has a mechanical heart valve and suffers from chronic heart rhythm, kidney stones and high blood pressure.”

The Guardian also explained that “Dhiab, who is recovering from hunger strikes and forced feedings, still has to walk with crutches,” adding that he said that the problems facing the former prisoners in Kazakhstan were “identical to what he and five other former prisoners experienced in Uruguay,” as the Guardian put it. “We have visited the hospital many times, but without getting the specific and proper healthcare we need,” he said, adding, “After jailing those people for years with no charges, the US sets them free without providing any support to ease the damage they inflicted.”

I am sorry to hear of the death of Asim al-Khalaqi, and I can only hope that all of the former prisoners resettled in other countries receive the best support possible, as it is clearly extremely difficult for former prisoners, far from home and without the support of their families, to overcome the trauma caused by their long imprisonment without charge of trial in an experimental prison, founded on torture and abuse, that should never have existed.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers). He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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35 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the sad news of the death of Asim al-Khalaqi, a Yemeni prisoner from ‪Guantanamo‬, who was freed in Kazakhstan in December, 13 years after he was first seized. He died of liver disease a few weeks ago, and, despite having been freed, had not been reunited with any of his family members before his death. Another victim of the disgraceful “war on terror.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Asif Rana wrote:

    Absolute disgrace!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Oh, this is so terrible. Liver disease, presumably from incarceration.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    You must be devastated, Andy.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Cyndy Tyler wrote:

    I am so sorry Andy. Heartbreaking

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Asif, Pauline and Cyndy. Obviously, I never knew Asim al-Khalaqi and never even saw a photo of him, but as someone who has been telling the stories of the Guantanamo prisoners for over nine years, I do find the deaths of men held without charge or trial for so many years upsetting – and I couldn’t help wondering how he must have felt, freed from Guantanamo but in Kazakhstan, ill and far from home.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Yes, far from home. It is utterly heart-breaking.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    That ban on repatriating Yemenis, because of fears that they’d end up in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, looks particularly stupid and cruel in this case, doesn’t it, Pauline? He was “overweight and suffered from gout, and frequently fell unconscious during his detention in Guantanamo.” So how was he supposed to be any sort of threat if he was sent back to his family? It makes me angry how the US so persistently refuses to accept any kind of genuine responsibility for its actions in this wretched and unending “war on terror.”

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander quoted my closing paragraph, and wrote:

    Thanks Andy.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Ann. Good to hear from you. As you know, it’s always important to remember that these are people, and not statistics. I felt so sad, reading the scraps of information from the other men who knew him, who provided what will have to pass for his epitaph. No one deserves to have been treated like this, made non-existent for 13 years and then dying in an unknown country.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    And his friends not even being allowed to attend his funeral. The final cruelty.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s right, Ann. The final cruelty.

  13. freedetainees.org – Former Guantánamo Prisoner Asim Al-Khalaqi Dies in Kazakhstan, Four Months After Being Freed says...

    […] Source Enter title here…var uri=window.location.href;document.write("");Enter content here…Send to Kindle […]

  14. saba says...

    Thank you Andy for highlighting their plight. Just terrible what they have been through. He is in a better place. This world can be too cruel.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your interest in Asim’s story, Saba. Good to hear from you.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Dhyanne Green wrote:

    How sad. He endured so much.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Jehan Hakim wrote:

    infuriating and heartbreaking all at once! 🙁

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Shoubhik Bose wrote:

    Very informative Andy. BTW, isnt it technically possible to get the families to the place where the released detainees are staying. If finance is an issue, I think this needs to be considered as part of rehabilitation process

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dhyanne, Jehan and Shoubhik, for caring – and Shoubhik, your point needs looking into. If money is needed, supporters could raise the funds necessary. I wonder if that would work, or if the problem is also political. Recently, Cage ran a fundraising campaign for the men in Uruguay, so that kind of campaign is obviously possible, but it seems to me that what the men in third countries need in particular is to be reunited with their wives and kids, if they have them, or to be able to meet other family members if not.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Cyndy Tyler wrote:

    Andy you may not have met him but you knew him and his struggle. I know you are heartbroken . My heart aches for you. (((((Andy)))) hugs

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks – again – for your understanding, Cyndy.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Anjum Anwar wrote:

    and the fight goes on! May God rest his soul!

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    MJ Tallon wrote:

    I’m so sorry to learn of this, Andy, and sad, and angry.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Anjum and MJ. Good to hear from you.

  25. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy!

    Thanks for amplifying Dhiab’s point that Guantanamo authorities would prefer the terminally ill get transferred, because it is even more embarrassing when they die in custody.

    With regard to the differing accounts, as to whether the Guantanamo captives get excellent health care, or lousy health care, Dr Xenaxis noted how, even if medical staff were committed to providing the captives with proper health care, the powerful day-to-day authority the junior NCOs who command the guard squads, could totally obviate that commitment, simply by not reporting the health problems they noticed in the captives they didn’t like, or declining to forward any health requests they made to the infirmary.

    Did you see Carol Rosenberg’s account of tracking an MRI machine that had been allocated for the prisoner’s infirmary? If I can paraphrase from memory — MRIs are expensive, but someone recognized that providing one ot the infirmary was important if the DoD was going to live up to its claims to provide the captives with excellent health care. Rosenberg found that the MRI never arrived, that it was diverted, several times, sat boxed in at least one warehouse, for months at a time, and eventually ended up being used at a GI infirmary thousands of miles away.

    My theory is that this diversion is not that different from the Navy rating who worked in the Guantanamo mail room who bragged to beautiful paralegal Heather Cerveny, how, even though he didn’t have any access to the captives to exact his share of payback for 9-11, he got even by destroying their mail.

    The Navy rating didn’t have official authorization to destroy the captive’s mail. Similarly, I suspect that whoever changed the destination of the captives’ MRI didn’t have any official authorization to do so. I suspect someone looked at the MRI’s destination, saw it was the captives’ infirmary, and out of inappropriate private outrage, diverted the equipment.

    I am going to repeat the sad story of the heart surgery that was never, in the end, provided to the elderly Pakistani media mogul Paracha. He had, he has, heart disease. A highly respected Navy cardiologist examined him, on a visit to Guantanamo, and recommended a procedure. I can’t recall, it might have been the insertion of heart stents. The cardiologist told Paracha, who is fluent in English, that an important element of his after care would be for him to start getting out of his hospital bed, as soon as possible, and walk around his hospital room — at roughly half hour intervals.

    Guantanamo rules require captives who are out of their cells, to be shackled, at all times. Captives are shackled to the dental chair, when they have a dental appointment. Captives seeing thier lawyers are shackled to the floor. Every work station in the classrooms that were eventually built had a hook where the shackles would bind them. Even severely ill patients were supposed to be shackled to their beds.

    Paracha learned that no exceptions could be made. He too would have to be shackled to his bed, even though the highly respected Navy cardiologist said it was essential for his recovery to walk around his hospital room.

    Another factor was that Guantanamo lacked the expensive equipment necessary to perform this kind of cardiac procedure.

    So Paracha sued to be temporarily flown to the USA, to have the procedure performed in a hospital in the USA, so he could follow the cardiologist’s after care instructions, and walk around.

    The DoD brought the expensive equipment to the captives’ infirmary, but remained intransigent about keeping Paracha shackled to his bed at all times. Paracha declined the procedure, since he couldn’t have it in accord with the cardiologist’s instructions. The equipment remained there. If I am not mistaken DoD spin-doctors have bragged that the captives’ infirmary is properly equipped for modern cardiac surgery, even though it remained unused.

    On paper, if not examined in detail, [people] could imagine the Guantanamo captives were provided with excellent health care. After all, their infirmary had an expensive modern cardiac kit. Their infirmary had had an expensive MRI machine ordered for it.

    I’ve noted before, and I’ll repeat, that when I checked the dates when Guantanamo medical staff recorded that they had weighed, or tried to weigh, individual captives, I found strange anomalies. Over three dozen captives had an annotation in their weight file for AFTER they had been released.

    Some of those anomalous recording said the captive had refused to be weighed. When the weight record was only a few days after their release, one could imagine an unimaginative medical technician checked a box for refused to be weighed when there was no box for, “no one told me he had been released”.

    But other anomalous recording were months, or years, after the captives’ release. And, worse, in about half of these anomalous records, the medical technician had actually recorded a weight for captives who had already been released.

  26. asifa says...

    Shame there’s no charity to help pay for relatives to visit freed prisoners if they’re allowed that is? Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un..rest in peace brother.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Anjum Anwar wrote:

    pleasure, keep up the good work Andy Worthington you and all those who suffer for freedom of others are in my prayers!

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Annabelle Parker wrote:

    very sad!

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Anjum – and Annabelle, good to hear from you.

  30. Inas says...

    This is heartbreaking :'(
    May all his pain, patience and struggles finally pay off. Ameen 💖:(

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    In response to 25, above:

    Thanks for your analysis, arcticredriver. Very interesting. I had missed the story about the MRI machine, although I wonder how its non-arrival came about, as I’d be surprised if anyone in a junior position could take responsibility for that.
    I also was not aware of the whole of your research into the prisoners’ weight records, as I hadn’t heard before about some weight records taking place after prisoners were released – or perhaps I had forgotten it.
    For anyone wanting to know more, there’s a Wikipedia talk page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:WikiProject_Terrorism/Guantanamo_weigh-ins
    And my 2009 report on the weight records is here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/guantanamos-hidden-history-shocking-statistics-of-starvation.pdf
    And the article accompanying it: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/10/guantanamos-hidden-history-shocking-statistics-of-starvation/

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    In response to 26, above:

    Thanks for the comments, Asifa. Good to hear from you. I think the charity option needs looking into. Reprieve has a Life After Guantanamo project which helps with resettlement, and organisations sometimes raise money specifically for certain prisoners (as Cage did recently for the men in Uruguay), but I do think we need answers as to what mechanisms, if any, are in place to help resettled prisoners to be reunited with their families, and if it’s an area in which individuals can help.

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    In response to 30, above:

    Thanks for the comments, Inas. Good to hear from you.

  34. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, there is a picture of Jihad Dhiab, still looking emaciated, on his crutches, in a restaurant in Uruguay, in this article.

    The article concerns a new edict from newly appointed Camp Commandant Rear Admiral K.J. Cozad — lawyers will no longer be allowed to bring food to share with the captives. No McDonald’s, no Subway, no Pizza. no middle eastern cakes or biscuits brought from the CONUS. Coffee will still be allowed.

    When I read the justification for this new edict I had to shake my head at the appalling hypocrisy of those who appoint brutal sadists to positions of authority at Guantanamo. Cozad’s deeply hypocritical justification for this edict was sanitation. The meeting cells weren’t designed for the consumption of food.

    Hello! It is a billion dollar installation. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to replace facilities that wore out because the base wasn’t designed to last for more than a decade. How much would it cost to retrofit these simple cages where lawyers meet with their clients so they were designed for the sanitary consumption of food? Would it require anything more than loaning the lawyers a broom, dustpan, and a damp sponge?

    But the really hypocritical aspect is that the military lawyers assigned to defend the captives had to fight for a long time — years if I recall correctly — to be issued safe offices. The offices they were issued were heavily infested with both cockroaches and rats, and so were full of roach and rat feces that they were genuine health hazards. Their superiors refused to relocate them, or have pest control address the problem.

    To my way of thinking this makes a mockery of Cozad’s claim to be concerned over sanitation.

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I saw the story this morning about the ban on food, which, of course, strikes me as a typical little cruelty, Guantanamo-style, because lawyers bringing food and sharing it with their clients has been a great way for friendships to develop – and a great opportunity for some of the men to have a treat that didn’t come about as a result of “cooperating with interrogators”, as used to happen so regularly.
    I’ll be writing about the ban soon for “Close Guantanamo.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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