Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have detained dozens of ethnic Kazakhs in recent weeks amid an ongoing security crackdown targeting anyone with ties beyond China's borders, sources told RFA.
Sources in China and neighboring Kazakhstan say that the China-based Kazakh ethnic minority, many of whom are Muslims, have recently been targeted in a similar manner to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, with a campaign of detentions for anyone with overseas connections.
Guards patrolling the border between Xinjiang and neighboring Kazakhstan detained a Kazakh student who had access to the Quran on her smartphone, amid security checks in which travelers' phones are being searched for banned content before they can cross the border.
One source who witnessed the security checks at the Jimunai border checkpoint said border guards appeared to be targeting the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities.
The phones are searched by computer to determine if they carry "terrorist propaganda" photos or videos, the source said.
A second source in the Altay district of Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture said the student had been detained July 28 as she tried to cross the border.
"She was detained when customs were checking her mobile phone and found it had an e-book app called Library with the Quran in it," the source said. "She didn't know much about this software; she had just gotten it from a classmate, but she was detained for it nonetheless."
Elsewhere in the region, more than 30 people have been detained since the start of the year over conversations on the popular smartphone chat app WeChat after they shared information about emigrating to Kazakhstan, sources said.
Emigration chats lead to detentions
Police in Arishan (in Chinese, Wenquan) county of Xinjiang's Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture have detained local people including farmers, herders, students and government officials, a separate source told RFA.
Many of those in the WeChat groups had relatives living across the border in Kazakhstan, and were detained for the alleged offense of "discussion of how to emigrate to Kazakhstan on group chat."
Among them was an official from Arishan's county town, Nurdalit Ebrey, who was detained on May 14 to an unknown location by police, with no documentation.
Student Taiersezi Dawutihan was also detained in mid-May after repeatedly visiting friends and relatives in Kazakhstan, his friend told RFA.
Chinese authorities have lately issued orders for ethnic Kazakh Chinese nationals to hand in their passports and Kazakh green cards in some parts of Xinjiang, although sources said some local governments have since returned the documents to their owners.
A Kazakh source in Kazakhstan said his friend's wife, a Chinese national, had also been recently detained.
"My friend's wife was detained," the source said. "She is an ordinary woman, not very cultivated, and would be highly unlikely to be involved in any religious activities."
"But she often traveled to Kazakhstan to buy various specialty foods to bring back to China," he said.
Last month, 36-year-old Kazakh herder Sanat Arun Haj was detained at his home in Arishan county after being accused of "forbidden comments" on WeChat, local sources told RFA.
He was also reported to have had "frequent contact" with friends and relatives in Kazakhstan, they said.
Elsewhere in Xinjiang, Serek Yelsik, a Kazakh imam from Qorghas (Huocheng) county in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture was sentenced to five years' imprisonment at a secret trial for "attempting to emigrate to Kazakhstan," a friend of his told RFA in a recent interview.
The sentence was handed down by the Qorghas County People's Court.
"The police suddenly showed up at his home and detained him, without giving any explanation whatsoever," the friend said. "They didn't give a reason, other than to say that he is a political prisoner."
A second local resident said the family's attempts to get more information about the accusations against Serek Yelsik have so far been in vain, however.
"His relatives told me that the verdict has already been sent to them, and that he has been jailed for five years," the resident said. "His wife went to the court, but they refused to tell her anything."
"She wanted to know exactly what the charges were against him, but the court said they wouldn't reveal such things."
Official figures show that there are around 1.5 million Kazakhs in China, mostly concentrated in and around the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture.
China has previously welcomed Kazakhs who wished to relocate from Kazakhstan, but now many Kazakhs with Chinese nationality are heading back in the other direction, with their numbers peaking at nearly 38,000 in 2006.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.