“I’m trying to be OK,” Sabri al-Qurashi texted me one afternoon after I asked how he was. Al-Qurashi has made it through a lot, but he’s increasingly depressed, tired, and has become desperate for his living conditions to change. By now, he has spent two decades feeling trapped with no end in sight.
Al-Qurashi lived the nightmare of languishing in a cage as a detainee at the notorious U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He never expected he’d be living in another version of a cage after he was released in 2014. For nearly a decade, he has found himself stuck in Kazakhstan. Promises once made to him of starting a life and starting a family after Guantánamo have now been all but shattered. His life now feels like one of permanent purgatory as he holds no form of basic identification at the mercy of the Kazakh government. With no hope or patience left, al-Qurashi is now threatening a hunger strike.
“Truly, my life now is just as bad as when I was in Guantanamo, and in many aspects even worse. At least there, I knew I was in prison and that I would get out one day,” al-Qurashi wrote in an account shared with The Intercept, which is set to be published by CAGE, a group that advocates for “war on terror” victims and detainees. “Now I’m living as if I’m dead and being told I am free when I am not.”
“Now I’m living as if I’m dead and being told I am free when I am not.”
When al-Qurashi met with representatives from Kazakhstan’s government while still at Guantánamo, he was optimistic about being sent to a new strange home. He agreed to a secretive resettlement deal negotiated by the U.S. State Department.
Unable to return to Yemen because of the country’s instability, al-Qurashi said he was offered a good life elsewhere. His understanding, and that of his legal team, was that, after living under some restrictions for two years, he would be a free man, with all the same rights as Kazakh citizens. It is a Muslim country, he was told, and he would be treated as a member of society. Instead, he said now he finds himself without the most basic needs.
“I have no official status, no ID card, no right to work or education, and no right to see my family,” al-Qurashi said. “I have been married for eight years, but my wife is not allowed to come and live with me.”
Al-Qurashi lives under conditions that are in stark contrast to the stability that the State Department had tried to guarantee in his deal. “The United States’ goal in resettling former Guantánamo detainees was to create conditions for these men to integrate into their new societies and give them the opportunity to start a new life in a manner that protected the security of the United States,” a former State Department official familiar with the Obama administration’s efforts to transfer Guantánamo detainees told The Intercept. “Among other things, successful resettlements entailed housing, access to medical care, educational opportunities, the ability to work, and the opportunity to start or reunify with their families.”
In an interview with The Intercept, al-Qurashi said that he has been repeatedly told over the years that his wife and other family are not allowed to visit, much less join him, from Yemen because he is “illegal.” He said he was told, “You have no rights.” According to a message viewed by The Intercept, the Red Crescent Society is currently negotiating with Kazakh officials for al-Qurashi’s wife to finally be allowed a brief first visit. “We are waiting for a reply. I will keep you informed,” an International Committee of the Red Cross representative working on al-Qurashi’s behalf texted him in late October. Al-Qurashi hasn’t heard anything since.
A spokesperson for the State Department said that once security agreements around resettlement expired, responsibility for treatment of the former detainees fell to the host governments. “Repatriation or resettlement of former detainees is a carefully negotiated process between the United States and receiving countries based on mutually reached security and humane treatment assurances. While security assurances are time-limited, assurances related to humane treatment do not expire,” said Bureau of Counterterrorism spokesperson Vincent Picard in a statement. “While host governments are encouraged to consult with us, the U.S. government does not exercise any sort of custody over the treatment of resettled individuals. We encourage all host governments to exercise their responsibilities humanely and with consideration of appropriate security measures.” (The Kazakh Embassy to the U.S. did not respond to a request for comment.)
For al-Qurashi to have gone so long without even documentation of his identity, in defiance of the diplomatic efforts of the State Department, is something his legal advocates never imagined.
“Ultimately, he never received proper identification to be a documented individual in the country, and that poses problems in any country,” Greg McConnell, al-Qurashi’s pro bono counsel, said. “That’s something that was never appropriately fulfilled in the way that we understood it would be by the Kazakh government.”
Following the broken promises, al-Qurashi now feels that no one cares about him. With the ICRC financing his apartment, food, and even a place to paint, al-Qurashi worries that Kazakh officials may ask, “What more could you possibly want?” For al-Qurashi, though, the new life he signed up for was one where his wife could join him, and they could build a home together. His existence now, he said, is sustained by aid, but it isn’t really life at all.
“Of course, I try not to give up,” he said, “but everything is against me.”
A painting Sabri al-Qurashi made while imprisoned at Guantánamo shows an airplane in the sky, seen through a broken chain-link fence, in 2014.
Illustration: Sabri al-Qurashi
Road to Guantánamo
Al-Qurashi maintains a calm confidence. His infectious smile is matched by a warm hospitality that can be felt through our WhatsApp video calls. His big hands wave around and often stop suddenly, palms up toward the ceiling when he emphasizes his most exasperating moments. When he’s not caught up in despair, his humor shines through.
On a call one afternoon in late fall, he asked me where I was sitting. “It’s a little backyard, like a garden,” I said, panning the laptop around my ground-floor, concrete yard in Brooklyn.
“Oh, I’ve got a garden too,” he said. “Let me show you.” He walked through a stark apartment and plunges the camera into the saddest-looking attempt at an indoor herb garden I’ve ever seen. Small green seedlings of basil and mint fight for life in a halved plastic water jug. A big laugh follows, his face transformed by a joyful moment of self-deprecation. A few weeks later, all the plants were dead.
For years, al-Qurashi has tried to keep himself sane by painting; his illustrations are sophisticated and conceptual, and his talent, discovered at Guantánamo, is immense. The power of escape afforded by making art, however, has diminished lately. “Even drawing, which is the best thing in my life, and I love it — I’m no longer enthusiastic about it,” he told me.
Al-Qurashi opened up about his youth in a series of interviews. Born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, he spent all his youth in Hafar al-Batin, doing odd jobs for vendors at the market so he could run home with 10 or 20 riyals in his pocket after school. With dreams of becoming a “rich man,” he began selling perfume oils in the Saudi markets in his mid-20s. Eventually, he took a trip to the wholesale factories in Pakistan, his first such solo visit. That’s when the 9/11 attacks happened. In a desperate attempt to leave the country while security forces were rounding up foreigners, al-Qurashi was grabbed in a raid of the apartment he was staying in.
“It is in my nature that I forgive even those who have wronged me.”
At the time, the U.S. government was doling out up to $5,000 to Afghan warlords and to the government of Pakistan for capturing suspected members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban and turning them over. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, 86 percent of the men jailed at Guantánamo were sold for a bounty. Al-Qurashi had no idea he was about to join hundreds of men handed over to American intelligence by Pakistani officials.
At the American makeshift prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, al-Qurashi said he was stripped naked, shaved, intimidated with dogs and deprived of water, warmth, and basic dignity. The worst day of his life, he said, was the flight to Cuba. He waited for his captors to realize their mistake, but the day never came. Through brutal interrogations, hunger strikes, and solitary confinement, he maintained his innocence.
Al-Qurashi said he feels no bitterness about what happened to him, even expressing gratitude for the friends he’s made along the way. I asked if he forgave the people who tortured him. “Of course,” he responded without hesitation. “It is in my nature that I forgive even those who have wronged me.”
A painting by Sabri al-Qurashi of a snowy landscape scene in Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan, in 2021.
Illustration: Sabri al-Qurashi
By the end of 2014, three Yemenis, including al-Qurashi, and two Tunisian men arrived in Kazakhstan from Guantánamo Bay — the first and last group to be sent to the former Soviet country. The destination may seem odd, but Kazakhstan is majority Muslim and could address the U.S.’s security concerns about a handoff. Harsh treatment, intensive surveillance, and harassment started immediately, as documented in a Vice investigation shortly after the men arrived.
Al-Qurashi and Lotfi bin Ali, a 6-foot-8 Tunisian, were first placed along the Russian border in Semey, a small city in the shadow of the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon testing site. The men expected to be welcomed in a Muslim country, but instead they found outward hostility.
Al-Qurashi struggled to learn Kazakh from a non-Arabic-speaking teacher, in a city that mostly spoke Russian. Lotfi, at the time, couldn’t find a winter coat that fit his huge frame.
Bin Ali frequently spoke to reporters about his conditions in Kazakhstan and, perhaps because of the embarrassing media reports, was resettled again in Mauritania, along with fellow Tunisian, Adel Hakimi. Never having returned home to Tunisia, bin Ali died on March 9, 2021, after struggling to find adequate medical treatment for heart disease.
“The State Department didn’t even pretend to give a shit,” said Mark Denbeaux, bin Ali’s former lawyer. “All they wanted to do was get people out of Guantánamo. They dumped them in Kazakhstan and didn’t care what happened.”
Another former Guantánamo detainee shipped to Kazakstan — Asim Thabit Al Khalaqi, a Yemeni without documented health problems — died four months after the transfer from a sudden severe illness. Friends and family allege medical malpractice and say his body was never returned to Yemen or properly buried.
Al Qurashi, too, now struggles to find adequate medical care for an injury he sustained three years ago, when a man violently assaulted him on the street. Struck in the face and left with nerve damage, he was told after the attack that he could not report the incident or have any sort of day in court. The police said al-Qurashi, because of his lack of status in the country, did not have standing to bring charges. His treatment for the partial facial paralysis is ongoing — he’s been given acupuncture and a jar of blood-sucking leeches — but he needs a complicated surgery that he is afraid to have performed because of how he’s been treated so far.
In addition to leaving his body in peril, the Kazakhs authorities’ approach to al-Qurashi has left him virtually unable to make meaningful social contact with those around him, he said.
“I have no basic dignity or freedom to move even in the streets around my apartment,” al-Qurashi explained in the CAGE account. “The government harasses anyone I get in contact with which makes it impossible to socialize. The government deters people from associating with me by telling us that we are terrorists and dangerous. Because of not wanting to put anybody in harm, I have stopped attempting to integrate with locals.”
Because of his lack of identification, al-Qurashi is unable to do basic things like send and receiving money, packages, or mail. He is unable to work. When he wants to leave his apartment, for instance to go fishing nearby, he must call the Red Crescent office and ask for his assigned chaperone to accompany him. Sometimes the wait is days long. He cannot leave his neighborhood, let alone drive or travel outside Kyzylorda, his open-air prison. “I exist in life, but I do not live it,” al-Qurashi told me.
The experience echoes those of other former prisoners speaking out against the relentless stigma of life after Guantánamo. “When they leave Guantánamo, it’s not as if they’re exonerated, it’s not as if the United States says that they’re innocent or that they were wrongfully detained,” said Maha Hilal, author of “Innocent Until Proven Muslim” and a scholar of the effect of the so-called war on terror on Muslims. “And so, obviously, they leave Guantánamo with the stigma of ‘terrorist’ on their back.”
Al-Qurashi said, “I have been treated like a terrorist since the day I stepped off the plane here.”
Of the five detainees sent to Kazakhstan, only al-Qurashi and Muhammad Ali Husayn Khanayna, who declined to comment, remain today in Kyzylorda.
When the Obama administration ended, so, too, did the diplomatic effort of the State Department working with men cleared for release from Guantánamo. The Trump administration disbanded the office responsible for the resettlements, then called the Special Envoy for the Closure of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facilities. Former Guantánamo prisoners were left with no support to hold their host countries to account for mistreatment. The men cleared for release from Guantánamo remained in prison as President Donald Trump canceled all outbound transfers.
Once the two-year deal between a host country and the State Department expired, there was no longer a means for maintaining that the hosting countries would treat the resettled detainees with basic human rights, said Martina Burtscher, a fellow at the human rights group Reprieve who works on Guantánamo issues. (“Once security assurances have expired, and pending any specific renegotiation of assurances, it largely falls to the discretion of the host country to determine what security measures they continue to implement,” said Picard, the State Department spokesperson.)
The complete collapse in communication and lack of diplomatic pressure allowed host countries like Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, and Senegal to do whatever they wanted with the resettled detainees — including imprisoning them and, in the case of Senegal, forced repatriation to Libya.
“This is not the solution the U.S. wanted, but [it happened] because of lack of care and lack of resources,” Burtscher said. “I understand that they need to empty Guantánamo. But they also have a responsibility to follow up.”
“They implanted these men in countries where they have no family, no friends, no connections, don’t speak the language, have nothing,” she continued. “The very least they can do is make sure that they have a solid legal status.”
“They implanted these men in countries where they have no family, no friends, no connections, don’t speak the language, have nothing. The very least they can do is make sure that they have a solid legal status.”
After Joe Biden assumed the Oval Office in 2021, the State Department created a desk with a mandate similar to the old special envoy, now the office of the Senior Representative for Guantánamo Affairs. Tina Kaidanow was appointed in August.
For resettled men like al-Qurashi, the appointment makes them no less desperate for their host country’s mistreatment to radically change. Through his lawyer, Greg McConnell, al-Qurashi sent a message to Kaidanow asking for help in his case. “Please, I’m asking you to review my case,” al-Qurashi wrote. “If I stay in Kazakhstan, I must be given the right to live and work as a free man, have legal status, be able to travel, and be allowed for family visits. If this is not possible in Kazakhstan, please, help [me] be relocated to another country where I can live as a free man.”
As al-Qurashi’s advocates continue to request legal status for him in the country, al-Qurashi said the only offer on the table from Kazakh officials is a trip back to Yemen — an offer that may violate the international law of nonrefoulement, Burtscher said. He has so far refused, the stigma of being branded an Al Qaeda terrorist by the U.S. potentially making him a target for various factions in the Yemeni civil war.
The State Department’s new office could conceivably intervene — should they make it a priority over transfers of detainees out of Guantánamo — and negotiate for al-Qurashi to be transferred to a more hospitable country.
Al-Qurashi, however, said he would stay in Kazakhstan if the authorities give him legal residence and allow his wife to live with him. “If I were given my freedom and rights, I could achieve so much more here,” he told me.
So far, the new State Department office has seemed slow to act. “Having the ambassador named is helpful and that certainly shows some level of commitment from the Biden administration,” McConnell said. “I have yet to really hear anything meaningful from them about what’s happening to remedy this situation. They’re very polite, very appreciative, and absorb a lot of information — and I get nothing back — and that hasn’t changed in a long time.”
Mansoor Adayfi, another Yemeni that was formerly held in Guantánamo, said nothing will happen without meaningful U.S. moves. “His case needs the U.S. government to get involved again to fix the problem. And either they need to talk to Kazakhstan to guarantee legal status, so he can see his wife, be able to get permission to work and live legally, like anyone else,” Adayfi said. “Or they should send him to a better country so he can build his life.”
McConnell said, “This was something of their making. It’s failed. And they need to help rectify it.”
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