Kazakh court frees woman who fled Chinese re-education camp

Sayragul Sauytbay in court in Zharkent, Kazakhstan. Photograph: Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP/Getty Images

Lily Kuo in Beijing
Wed 1 Aug 2018 16.27 BST

A Chinese national who gave rare public testimony about China’s secretive “re-education” camps in Xinjiang will be allowed to stay in Kazakhstan, where she has applied for asylum.

Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang, had been at risk of deportation to China after being charged with illegally crossing the border.

She has said she fled after being forced to teach Chinese history to detainees at a re-education camp. Her lawyer said she would face detention and possible torture if sent back to China.

On Wednesday, a Kazakh court imposed a six-month suspended sentence and ordered her to regularly check in with police.

Supporters in the courtroom broke into applause and cheered after the verdict was announced. After being released, Sauytbay said to a crowd outside the courthouse: “When I came to Kazakhstan, I had a feeling that I am on my own. Now I am confident that it is not true... I have my people, my nation, my homeland that can stand for me.”

Serikzhan Bilash, a local activist who had been advocating for her release, said: “I think it’s a very good judgment. This is a first in Kazakhstan. This evening we will celebrate.”

Kazakhstan has previously deported ethnic Uighurs back to Xinjiang, where China has launched a “strike hard” campaign against extremism and potential separatist movements. The western territory is home to about 12 million Muslims, mostly ethnic Uighurs, as well as about 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs.

Giving testimony in July, Sauytbay spoke about a re-education camp in Xinjiang where she had worked, saying it held about 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs.

“In China they call it a political camp but really it was a prison in the mountains,” Sauytbay said, according to a video of her testimony. “That I am discussing this camp in an open court means I am already revealing state secrets.”

Researchers say tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are held at camps. China denies the camps exist, but Chinese state media have hailed the use of education in Xinjiang “to rectify extremist thinking”.

Sauytbay’s case put Kazakh authorities in an awkward position, caught between China, one of Kazakhstan’s largest trading partners, and a public increasingly angry about the number of ethnic Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang. Activists in Kazakhstan say many families are searching for relatives who have disappeared over the border.

“The case shows the Kazakh authorities can stand up to China, even given its close economic ties,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Our hope is that other governments can find their courage to confront the Chinese government on the escalating repression in Xinjiang.”

Categories: 
Share/Save