Relatives of missing Kazakhs in Xinjiang fall silent during Xi Jinping's visit

Relatives of missing Kazakhs in Xinjiang fall silent during Xi Jinping’s visit

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — In the days before Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, activists were arrested and intimidated for protesting the imprisonment of their relatives in the Chinese province of Xinjiang and its extensive system of internment camps.

Bakhyt Zharykbasova’s husband, Baibolat Kunbolat, was one of those arrested and sentenced to 15 days of arrest. For more than a year and a half, Kunbolat has organized demonstrations outside the Chinese consulate in the country’s largest city, Almaty, demanding the release of his brother, along with other Kazakhs whose relatives are missing, imprisoned or trapped in the neighboring region.

But ahead of Xi’s high-profile September 14 visit – his first trip abroad in more than two years – protesters say they’ve been met with a spate of arrests, police calls and warnings not to travel to Nur-Sultan. The Sultan in an attempt to prevent dissent during a Chinese leader’s state visit.

“The authorities warned him and I warned him [too]but he decided that this is what he was going to do, and [that] he will continue to do so,” Zharykbasova, whose husband was arrested on September 10, told RFE/RL. “Baybolat says he’s fine [in detention]but I know they won’t release it while the Chinese chairman is here.”

Baibolat Kunbolat protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Nur-Sultan in February 2020 with a poster of his brother imprisoned in Xinjiang.

China’s crackdown on Xinjiang has sent more than 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities into mass detention camps. As the Beijing network accelerated in 2017, plight of ethnic Kazakhs internees in China have suddenly become a source of dissent, and testimonies from former detainees and their families fuel a guerrilla propaganda campaign that has led to widespread international attention To a question.

As a result, the Kazakh government has balanced between appeasing Beijing, which denies a long list of abuses documented in its camp system, and resolving the issue. irritated part of its population lobbying the interests of family members in China.

“There’s only one goal here [with these arrests and threats] — to please the Chinese leader,” Yerbol Dauletbek, leader of the officially registered branch of Atazhurt Eriktileri, a group that lobbies for the interests of ethnic Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang and their relatives, told RFE/RL. “That’s how [the government] helps cover up China’s crimes.”

Crackdown on protests in Xinjiang

The demonstrators faced growing pressure from authorities even before Xi’s meeting with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was announced.

In recent years, the government has carried out a swift crackdown on activists working on Xinjiang issues in the country: shutting down organizations, arresting activists, and intimidating leading figures into exile, leaving only a small but dedicated segment like Kunbolat and his colleagues. – for mass protests.

On September 12, Gulfiya Kazybek, Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva, and Kalida Akytkhan, who have been participating in ongoing protests outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty and the embassy in Nur-Sultan since February 2020, said they were pulled from a bus by police officers. during a trip to a wedding in the southwestern city of Shymkent.

“The police demanded that we get off the bus and then took us to the police station,” Kazybek told RFE/RL.

At the police station, the three women were told that an administrative case had been opened on violation of the “order for holding peaceful assemblies,” and they were handed summons.

Kurmanaliyeva and Kazybek contacted the local police station in Almaty on 13 September, but were told that their case file had not yet been received and were told to wait for a phone call for more information, which had not yet been provided. this article has been published.

Kurmanaliyeva told Radio Liberty that she believes security personnel have been following her and other protesters since September 10, saying she and others have documented instances of surveillance at the market and near their homes.

“We will protest until our relatives leave,” she said. “I am against the visit of Xi Jinping. He staged a genocide against the Kazakhs and Muslims in Xinjiang and came here as if nothing had happened. He must be held accountable for what he does.”

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (right) meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a state visit to Nur-Sultan September 14.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (right) meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a state visit to Nur-Sultan September 14.

Following the release earlier this month of a revealing UN report saying China has committed “grave human rights violations” in Xinjiang mass detention camps that could be crimes against humanity, activists urged Tokayev to raise this issue treatment of ethnic Kazakhs during his negotiations with Xi.

Kurmanaliyeva says she was told by an official from the Almaty city administration that Tokayev would make things worse for their relatives when he met with Xi, though she doubts that will happen.

“They just didn’t want us to go to [the capital]”, – said Kurmanaliyeva. “They told us: “You will create problems.”

Other protesters who participated in regular pickets outside the Chinese consulate and embassy also faced detentions and harassment ahead of Xi’s visit.

Akikat Kaliolla, a musician whose relatives are believed to be in Xinjiang’s camp system, was also sentenced to 15 days in prison for allegedly violating public protest laws and was taken straight from a recording studio by police.

Nurzat Yermekbay, who also regularly participated in demonstrations against the camps, said that on September 10 he was detained in Almaty for four hours and warned the police “not to go to the capital.”

Bekzat Maksutkhan, head of the unregistered human rights group Nagyz Atazhurt, which works with families whose relatives have gone missing in Xinjiang, told RFE/RL that the Kazakh authorities are effectively cracking down on dissent on the issue and that the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang is not receiving mainstream attention in Xinjiang. country.

The Chinese embassy in Nur-Sultan did not publicly respond to the protesters’ calls, and neither the embassy nor the consulate in Almaty responded to RFE/RL’s request for comment on the fate of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang and protesters’ complaints.

Xi arrives

The fact that Xi has chosen Kazakhstan and Central Asia as the first step out of China since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lends prestige and geopolitical importance to the government in Nur-Sultan.

Expanding the already close economic and political ties with China has been a priority for the Kazakh government, and local authorities have negotiated cautiously with Beijing over the issue of Kazakh internees.

The problem is further complicated by complex family ties across the long 1,782-kilometer border between China and Kazakhstan.

Cross-border ties have been a mainstay for centuries, but they accelerated when the Kazakh government tried to recruit ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang to move after the fall of the Soviet Union. This led to the fact that many Kazakhs of Chinese origin left their homes and moved to neighboring Kazakhstan. They became permanent residents and even citizens of Kazakhstan, while maintaining close ties to their family in China.

In cases where Kazakh citizens, many of whom were born in China, have been detained in Xinjiang, the Kazakh government has negotiated behind the scenes with Beijing for their release. But he says he has no jurisdiction in other cases.

“Since the Kazakh diaspora living in Xinjiang are citizens of the People’s Republic of China, all issues related to them are China’s internal affairs,” a spokesman for the Kazakh foreign ministry told RFE/RL. “Therefore, it is necessary to consider ways to resolve this issue without compromising the comprehensive and eternal strategic partnership between Kazakhstan and China.”

Temur Umarov, an expert on China’s relations with Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL that internment camps are hot political topic for Beijing, and given Nur-Sultan’s track record, Tokayev is unlikely to raise the issue publicly and even less likely to criticize China’s detention system during meetings with Xi.

“There is an unspoken rule in relations between Kazakhstan and China: only successes are publicly mentioned, and problems are never spoken about,” he said. “Central Asian countries cannot afford to criticize Beijing just because they depend on [China]. Criticism may come back to haunt them with economic repercussions.”

Written and published by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by Nurtai Lakhanuly and Elnur Alimova in Almaty and Chris Rickleton in Nur-Sultan.

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