Asim Thabit Al Khalaqi was a Saudi citizen held in Guantanamo for 12 years between 2002-2014. With no charges or trial against him, he was cleared for release in 2007 but was only released 7 years later. Under an obscure and opaque arrangement between the US and Kazakhstan, Asim was resettled in Kazakhstan in 2014. With chronic kidney failure, Asim repeatedly petitioned for essential medical care after being resettled, however this request was denied.
Approximately 129 after his transfer, Asim died in sinister circumstances while under the “medical supervision” of a temporary health facility. Many questions remain around the circumstances of Asim’s death and his family seek clarity. Kazakhstan has refused to send his body home and he remains buried in an unknown location.
Asim was one of the very first men to be captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay, arriving less than two weeks after the infamous facility opened its doors. Asim was part of the Jamaat Al Tabligh, a group travelling religious preachers working in grassroots communities. With too many fellow ‘Tablighis’ already involved in similar work; Asim was advised to travel to Afghanistan. Soon after, the events of 9/11 took place, and everything changed. Asim was warned by an Afghan to make a swift exit from the country as Arabs were being targeted and sold off to Americans in return for a sizeable bounty.
In a now-dangerous climate, Asim headed towards the Pakistan borders where he handed himself into the army on arrival. The US authorities allege that Asim had undertaken military training in Afghanistan and was on the front lines in Bagram. A long and torturous 12 years of imprisonment followed for Asim, despite no charges of evidence ever being presented against him in Guantanamo Bay.
Upon release, Asim was resettled into a sparsely furnished apartment in Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan under the care of the local chapter of the Red Cross (Red Crescent). They were given the responsibility of providing former prisoners with “healthcare, food stipends, language classes and transport.” Asim frequently fell ill and asked for the support of the Red Crescent in Kazakhstan but was given little in return.
We speak to Muhammad- a fellow Guantanamo Bay detainee and friend of Asim’s- about the circumstances in which Asim died.
Like many other prisoners, I met Asim in Guantanamo. There were 5 of us transferred from Guantanamo to Kazakhstan- 3 Yemenis and 2 Tunisians. We initially lived in the same city before we were separated and moved apart. It became hard for us to communicate though we tried to speak on the phone and keep in touch.
We all knew about Asim’s health problems from our time together in Guantanamo. He had severe kidney failure, gout, and extremely painful kidney stones. We watched him suffer in Guantanamo for years because of this. In Guantanamo, he was given the most basic level of medical care because simply, the US do not want you to die there- they will do just enough to keep you alive and nothing more than that.
Even this negligible amount of healthcare he received in Guantanamo was a world away from what he got in Kazakhstan, where he was abandoned entirely for all his medical needs. He was left alone in a bare flat and had a 6:00pm curfew. One doctor he saw recommended that he be transferred to the capital where there were hospitals, but the Red Crescent denied this request and left him to suffer alone.
Asim asked for some medical assistance and was refused this. He asked whether someone from his family could come to help him with his daily needs and was refused support. He was rendered completely immobile as he lost the use of his legs until he could only move around by crawling. His pain was so intense that he struggled to take care of himself. One day his condition took a drastic turn for the worst, and he began to cry out in pain. He screamed for so long that he eventually fell unconscious. Only then was he transferred somewhere they call a “hospital” at 12:00pm midday, and he was pronounced dead at 10:00pm that same evening.
The Red Crescent had taken him somewhere undisclosed within a rural area. There was no hospital there, no equipment, and no medical facilities. We do not know in what conditions or circumstances he died in as there were no witnesses or outsiders permitted.
The day after he died, we were visited by the Kazakh government who asked us to sign a paper confirming that he died of “natural causes”. We refused to do this. This is a man who spent 3 months begging for medical attention while he crawled on his arms around his flat. I believe the government knew he was going to die and wanted to get rid of him. When he did die, the government refused to take his body home. Instead, they got me, another former detainee Adel and an interpreter to pray the funeral prayer (janaza) over him in the mosque and take him to the cemetery.
The secret service handled everything and cloaked the entire process in secrecy. I believe that they most likely also removed his organs. Asim was a heavy man and the body we carried was extremely light. They also would not allow us to look at his body and refused to repatriate it to his family. Despite the pleas of Asim’s family, the Kazakh government made one excuse after another over why they cannot send his body home. They also have hidden the location of where he is buried. We were simply taken in vehicle to an unmarked location and told this is the cemetery. We do not know if it even was a public or genuine burial place.
I spoke to one of Asim’s brothers not long afterwards. Understandable, his family were shocked, confused and in great distress over the new they received. I had no answers to give them and the Kazakh government were refusing to answer any questions. They simply refused to engage with us at all. Since then, there has not been any new information, no investigations and no questions answered.
I believe Asim was always seen as a burden and inconvenience to the Kazakh government, as he was to the US government when they released him from Guantanamo. They not only hid his body in death, but they tried to hide the extent of his illness, his need for help just to survive and the truth of how he was made to live. They wanted to erase his existence as if he was never there.
After his death, I went to collect his belongings from his flat. Asim was a gifted poet and writer. He had written many poems and had kept his letters and correspondence from Guantanamo. I kept these precious momentos of his life in my own apartment, hoping one day to be able to return them to his family. As happens regularly to us however, my home was raided while I was out and everything that ever belonged to Asim was taken. It is as if it was not enough to take his life, but now they wanted to scrub his words out of existence altogether so there was no trace of him ever being here.
I know Asim died of extreme medical negligence at best, and was intentionally killed at worst. The Kazakh government and Red Crescent could have intervened at any opportunity to provide him with the support they promised. They could have transferred him to an adequate hospital and seen to his medical care. Instead, they left him to slowly suffer alone until his pain was unbearable and then swiftly “disappeared” him when they got their opportunity.
What happened to Asim is happening to all of us too, his case is unfortunately not isolated. We struggle daily to meet basic standards of humane living and are seen as sub-human by the authorities who claim to protect our welfare. Asim met with a slow, painful death following over a decade of unjust detention. We all continue to suffer in the darkness of that legacy.
To support former Guantanamo Bay prisoners then please consider donating to Mansoor Al-Dayfi’s fundraiser for the Guantanamo Survivors Fund, and independent project to support former prisoners.
Image Courtesy of US Army on Flikr
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