The authorities of Kazakhstan are as careful as possible when it comes to protection of ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs that fled Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China.
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In early February this year, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo during his visit to Kazakhstan urged to stand up for the Muslims in Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China.
“The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an intermediate end to this repression. We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China,” Pompeo said.
One day later, the China’s ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiao called the statement of the Secretary of State “a staged performance” and denied the messages about discrimination against Uighurs in XUAR.
“There are over 25,000 mosques in Xinjiang, which is more than in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany combined, that is one mosque per 500 Muslims, which is more than in many Muslim countries. Ignoring the main facts about Xinjiang and continuing to throw mud at China, Pompeo has demonstrated to the world his own ideological biases and prejudice,” the ambassador wrote on his Facebook account.
The Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region occupies one-sixth part of China and is located in the northwest of the country. According to 2010 data, 22 million people live here, including 46 per cent of Uighurs.
Tensions began in 2009. Back then, two Uighurs were killed in the south of China, which caused mass disorders in Xinjiang. The police suppressed the disorders violently, but some continued to oppose and even committed terror attacks that led to dozens of victims.
In 2016, the region started installing face recognition cameras, and citizens may be photographed, fingerprinted and iris scanned in numerous checkpoints in XUAR during identity checks. According to media reports, every citizen of Xinjiang must install an application to one’s smartphone that tracks their location, messages, calls and internet traffic.
The economist and human rights activist, ethnic Uighur from XUAR, Ilkham Tokhti, has been talking about the oppression of Uighurs for many years and tried to establish a dialogue between Beijing and the Uighur people. Back in 2014, he was charged with separatism and sentenced for life. Last year, he was awarded the Andrei Sakharov international award, which is awarded annually by the European parliament to prominent citizens around the world for their contribution to the human rights struggle.
In spring 2017, all global media started to report that XUAR launched a colossal experiment of mass surveillance and control over Muslims and especially ethnic Uighurs. “Political re-education camps”, which were called by Beijing vocational training centres created to counter extremism and terrorism, were first reported.
In 2018, the UN stated that up to one million of Muslim representatives of indigenous communities in the region can be detained in the “camps” of Xinjiang. According to international organisations, there are about 80 such facilities in the region.
According to the natives of XUAR and former inmates, now it is forbidden to wear hijabs, attend mosques and say prayers in this part of China. Also, it is forbidden to give religious names to children.
According to former inmates, a man professing Islam may be sent to the camp under any pretext.
According to Human Rights Watch, the reasons could be an Islamic greeting or praying, visits abroad or even the use of WhatsApp. The most widespread charges that can lead to the camp are extremism, terrorism, separatism.
Not to sour relations
Nurlan Kokteubaev used to be a teacher at a Xinjiang-based school, and a year ago, after retirement, he decided to move to Kazakhstan with his family. He told that a few months after his move, they were called to China.
“At first, my wife left, and I left in a month. As soon as I arrived, I was charged with terrorism, and was placed into the camp where 40 people lived in one room. All of them were Uighurs, there were few Kazakhs. […] Then I had health issues, I had a seizure. The prison is all equipped with CCTV and TVs, where they give praises to Xi Jinping in Chinese language, to how he helps the global community, to how the communist party of China makes good deeds to us, etc.,” Kokteubaev said.
Gulbakhar Dzhalilova has the same story. The ethnic Uighur woman spent 15 months in the Chinese prison.
“They look at you and say, ‘Your gaze is fixed at some point for a long time, are you reading a prayer?’ If you look down, they say, ‘you are greeting someone’, ‘you are performing the namaz’. Uighur language is banned there. I used to wear five-kilogramme shackles for one year three months and 10 days. They gave us paper and we wrote there, ‘thank you to the party’, ‘we love China’, ‘China is the top country in the world’. If we wrote otherwise, they placed us into a ‘dark room’”, Dzhalilova said.
Her family sought help at the UN. Afterwards, according to the woman, she was interrogated and then released.
A Kazakhstan resident, ethnic Uighur Bakhargul Tokhtakhunova said they are scared of contacting their relatives in China because of the news about “camps” and detentions of Muslims in Xingjian.
“We miss them and want to go there, but it’s very dangerous. Even if you are a citizen of Kazakhstan, you can be detained for a few months just for checking purposes. Our acquaintances’ daughter was detained in the camp in China just because she had a photo that was taken abroad. It’s all a nightmare. I cannot say what we feel. Last time I was there in 2007 and we want to know if our relatives are alive or not,” Tokhtakhunova said.
Last December, the members of the European Parliament urged the government of China to immediately close “political re-education camps”. In their resolution, they thought it was a reliable information that ethnic minorities who practice Islam in Xinjiang “are subject to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and extensive digitised surveillance”.
One month later, the House of Representatives of the United States Congress approved the draft law that allows to introduce sanctions against high-level Chinese officials in response to violations of human rights in XUAR. The United States have imposed sanctions against a range of Chinese organisations.
However, the president of Kazakhstan Kassym Zhomart-Tokayev in the interview to the Deutsche Welle said that information of human rights defenders about “camps” does not reflect the reality.
“We understand this is a part of geopolitics as China and the United States confront each other in a trade war. Time will tell the outcome of negotiations, whether the sanctions against China will be removed. However, Kazakhstan should not become a territory of the so-called global anti-Chinese battlefield,” Tokayev said.
The same situation happens in Kyrgyzstan, where the subject of ethnic Kyrgyz in “educational centres” of China was actively discussed only in autumn 2018. Later on, the activists held a rally in front of the UN House and wrote a petition asking to establish a special committee to investigate the events in China. In January 2019, about 150 people held a rally demanding to stop granting citizenship of Kyrgyzstan to Chinese nationals, but ethnic Kyrgyz.
However, neither officials, nor politicians of both countries discuss the issue in Xinjiang and “political re-education camps” openly.
“In Kazakhstan, they say that Uighurs in Xinjiang have no problems. No one speaks openly about this problem, even the members of parliament on behalf of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan. Although, they know about this problem, they just don’t want to have other problems. Kazakhstan cannot compete with China. There’s no exact information about the number of ethnic Uighurs in the country who lost contact with their relatives in China,” said Kakharman Kozhamberdy, key advisor of the World Uighur Congress, who lives in Kazakhstan.
Mekhriban Amirova moved from China to Kazakhstan together with her husband and children and now lives in Almaty region. According to her, her husband went back to sell the house and should have come back a long time ago. But 18 months have passed since then and he called only twice.
“He called via WeChat, said he was studying patriotism and everything was fine, but I understood what he meant. He didn’t want us to visit him, but they must be forcing him to tell so. His voice was trembling and he said everything would be fine. We have many relatives, friends who have been placed to the camp because they knew us and we left abroad because we are spies,” Amirova said.
She is waiting for her husband to come back and hoping he will be granted the citizenship of Kazakhstan.
“Our daughters don’t want to go to China as we’ll be placed to the camp immediately. If we don’t get the citizenship of Kazakhstan on time, we’ll go to Turkey because they won’t deport us from there, that’s for sure,” Amirova said.
Political analyst Nurlan Tileubaev said Kazakhstan is not a safe place for ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang. Even ethnic Kazakhs use Kazakhstan as a place of transit to get asylum in another country. They fear that Nur-Sultan can deport them to China.
“Even the ethnic Kazakh woman, who sought asylum, Sairagul Sautbai, left for Sweden. […] Even Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad admitted last year the fact of oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang and noted the country won’t deport Uighur refugees who came to Malaysia for protection despite China’s requests. Many Uighurs, even those who have relatives in Kazakhstan, have to leave for Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, and Myanmar. Because Kazakhstan does not want to sour relations with neighbours,” Tileubaev said.
This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»