Unprecedented Kazakh court judgement spares “re-education camp” political asylee potential death sentence in China

Unprecedented Kazakh court judgement spares “re-education camp” political asylee potential death sentence in China

Sayragul Sauytbay (centre) addresses journalists and supporters after a Kazakh judge handed her a six-month suspended sentence for illegally crossing the border from China to Kazakhstan on 1 August 2018.

(Naubet Bisenov)

A court in Kazakhstan has set free an ethnic Kazakh woman from China tried for illegally crossing the border to join her family in a high-profile judgement that has put a spotlight on China’s secretive “indoctrination camps”.

On 1 August, Sayragul Sauytbay, 41, was handed down a six-month suspended term by a court in Zharkent, a border town near China’s Xinjiang province, but has been spared deportation to China where she is wanted by the government for revealing “state secrets”.

For four months earlier this year, Sauytbay worked as a trainer at a government-run “political education” camp in Xinjiang, the autonomous north-western region where Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslim minorities such as ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz face discrimination and marginalisation. She escaped to Kazakhstan in May 2018, where her husband and two children live, and has since become the only former camp instructor to publicly speak out against the camps.

The charge of crossing the border illegally could have resulted in a fine of about US$7,200 or a year in prison and deportation, but the judge agreed to an unprecedented request by the prosecution to issue a suspended six-month term to Sauytbay without deportation on humanitarian grounds.

The defence argued that if Sauytbay was sent to China she could face the death penalty for testifying in an open court that she had worked in one of China’s suspected “indoctrination camps” for Muslim minorities.

Although Beijing strongly denies the existence of such camps, earlier this year, Adrian Zenz of the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, wrote in a paper that “at least several hundred thousand and possibly just over one million” people had been interned in such camps in Xinjiang, which has a population of approximately 24 million people, 46 per cent of which are Uighurs while 7 per cent are ethnic Kazakhs.

Rich in natural resources and relatively undeveloped, Xinjiang is a key component of China’s Belt and Road initiative, as gas and oil pipelines from across central Asia and transport networks linking Europe and the Middle East with China cut through its territory. At the same time, development of the region has been accompanied by the large-scale migration of Han Chinese, which has often created rifts with the local population.

“Then you will be sentenced to death”

“After they appointed me to work in a political camp, a secret body, they engaged me in collecting secrets and forced me to sign a pledge not to reveal state secrets abroad,” Sauytbay told the court during her trial, which started in mid-July. “That measure had a clear purpose so that even if one part of it is disclosed, it meant ‘then you will be sentenced to death,’” said Sauytbay.

In these camps, authorities are said to force internees to learn Mandarin Chinese and the national anthem. Detainees are also indoctrinated about the Communist Party of China (CPC) by memorising texts and slogans while being taught how good the party is for China.

When Sauytbay and her family decided to move to Kazakhstan in 2016 her husband and two children were allowed to leave China but the authorities prevented Sauytbay from doing so, ostensibly because as a public-sector employee and as a member of the CPC they said she needed to undergo additional checks. However, they later seized her passport, while her family obtained Kazakh citizenship.

In her emotionally-charged final statement, Sauytbay explained her motives for committing her crime: “Since I had no means of crossing the border legally I had no choice but cross the border illegally. I had to resort to such illegal action because it was my last opportunity to reach my children, otherwise if I stayed for a week or five days longer, I would have disappeared in a Chinese camp.”

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has welcomed the verdict. Mihra Rittmann, a central Asia researcher at HRW told Equal Times: “Both the prosecutor – in asking for Sayragul’s release, and the court, in granting her a suspended sentence – did the right thing, and in doing so, set an important precedent. By not rendering a sentence that included deportation, Kazakhstan offered Sayragul the protection she sought in fleeing China. It was a good, and essential, outcome,” said Rittmann.

Sauytbay’s comparatively light sentence came as a surprise, even to her legal team. Speaking to Equal Times in the courtroom after his defendant was released, her lawyer Abzal Kuspan said: “We achieved our aim, but I did not see it coming like this. This is a huge precedent. This is a situation that has never happened in Kazakhstan’s judicial system.”

During the trial, in order to prevent possible deportation, Sauytbay’s lawyer submitted documents to acquire refugee status for her.

“Kazakhstan has a very poor record upholding the principle of non-refoulement and Sayragul’s case is a welcome departure from that record,” Rittmann said in reference to Astana’s previous practice of handing over people wanted by neighbouring countries despite facing real risks of torture and ill-treatment.

In 2011, for example, Astana extradited a Uighur to China even though he had been granted UN refugee status. That same year, Kazakhstan came under the spotlight when it extradited 29 Uzbek nationals wanted by the government in Tashkent on “religious extremism” charges despite their pending asylum claims. According to HRW, between 2005 and 2010 Kazakhstan extradited at least 13 Uzbek refugees. These cases were “an especially egregious violation of the principle of non-refoulement, and in particular, the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment,” Rittmann said.

Winds of change?

The popular support for Sauytbay’s plight in Kazakhstan is likely to have had an impact on the way the Kazahk authorities handled her case. Stories of ethnic Kazakhs being detained in China have been doing the rounds on social media and supporters threatened to protest if Sauytbay was deported.

In addition, Everyday Kazakhs are becoming increasingly hostile to what they perceive to be China’s gradual encroachment on Kazakhstan, be it Chinese businesses or ordinary Chinese citizens. In 2016, Kazakhstan was overwhelmed by a wave of protests against the potential sale of farmland to Chinese businessmen under government land reforms. As a result, the government had to postpone some elements of the reforms for five years.

“It’s too soon to determine whether the decision in Sauytbay’s case is indication of a new policy in Kazakhstan. That said, it can serve as an important precedent in cases where individuals face serious risk of persecution if forcibly returned to their home country,” Rittmann suggested.

“It is notable that the judge cited international law in her justification of the sentencing.”

Sauytbay’s lawyer Kuspan argued that her possible deportation would be in breach of Kazakhstan’s international commitments under the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose Article 9 states signatory countries “shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”. Both Kazakhstan and China are signatories to the convention.

Kuspan told Equal Times that by crossing the border illegally, which Sauytbay never denied, his defendant also broke Chinese law so he now expects Beijing to continue to demand her handover in order to try her in China. He fears that Beijing will request Sauytbay’s extradition any time now, but he is hopeful that Kazakh authorities will not give in to their demands before her refugee status is decided.

For Rasul Zhumaly, an Almaty-based independent political analyst: “The trial was indeed conducted in line with the principles our country declares such as democracy, justice, transparency and pluralism. All this is extremely rare in our delivery of justice,” he told Equal Times. “It is needless to try to speculate here whether it was an order from on high or whether it was the decision or competence of the prosecutor and judge, but the fact remains that the right decision, I believe, has been adopted.”