Kazakhstan Denies Asylum to Woman Who Fled China's Camps in Xinjiang

A Kazakh Honor Guard stands at attention during Vice President Dick Cheney's arrival to Astana, Kazakhstan, Friday, May 5, 2006. The Vice President’s visit to Kazakhstan is the second stop of a six-day, three-country trip to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. White House photo by David Bohrer

By Catherine Putz
October 11, 2018

Last week, Kazakh authorities rejected an asylum request from Sayragul Sauytbay. Sauytbay’s closely followed trial for illegally crossing the Chinese-Kazakh border ended dramatically in August with the court declining to deport her and handing down only a six-month suspended sentence.

The rejection of Sauytbay’s initial asylum request brings attention back to the difficult position Kazakhstan finds itself in with regard to China, the Kazakh public, and the troubling happenings in Xinjiang on which Astana has been largely silent.

An ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen, Sauytbay fled the re-education camps in Xinjiang in April to join her family in Kazakhstan. Chinese authorities had previously taken her passport when she was reassigned to teach in one of the so-called political re-education centers. Sauytbay, whose husband and children are Kazakh citizens, fled the camps into Kazakhstan but was arrested in May.

During her trial, which ended in August, Sauytbay spoke openly in court about the camps, which Chinese authorities at the time denied existed. Sauytbay said in court that while the Chinese authorities called them “political camps… In fact, it is a prison located in the mountains.”

Abzal Kuspanov, Sauytbay’s lawyer, warned ahead of the trial that if Sauytbay was sent back to China she would “simply disappear.”

The conclusion of the trial — which included Sautbay walking freely out of the court — was warmly welcomed. Serikzhan Bilash, a local activist told The Guardian, “I think it’s a very good judgment. This is a first in Kazakhstan. This evening we will celebrate.”