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 вЂ” 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 вЂ” the region's Red Cross вЂ” 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.
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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.