Two activists arrested by authorities in Kazakhstan last week were likely detained because they challenged government plans to deport a pair of ethnic Kazakh Chinese nationals who fled persecution in neighboring China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to fellow rights campaigners.
Qaster Musakhanuly and Murager Alimuly, ethnic Kazakh resdents of Dorbiljin (in Chinese, Emin) county and Chochek (Tacheng) city in the XUAR’s Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) prefecture, fled across the border to Kazakhstan and arrived in Almaty on Oct. 8, before holding a press conference at the office of the Atajurt rights group two days later, calling for asylum.
Alimuly said he had been subjected to persecution in the XUAR, while Musakhanuly claimed he had spent years in one of an estimated 1,300-1,400 internment camps in the region, where authorities are believed to have held 1.8 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
On Oct. 14, the two men were formally accused of illegally entering Kazakhstan and placed in pretrial detention, and earlier this month Darkhan Dilmanov, the deputy chief of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, announced that they will be deported, despite the objections of Atajurt’s activists, who say the pair will “definitely” face torture and possible death if sent home.
On Dec. 9, Atajurt members Kapar Akhat and Zhumamurat Shamshi—both Kazakhstan nationals—held a press conference in which they recommended that the Kazakh government reconsider plans to deport Musakhanuly and Alimuly.
The press conference came a week after Akhat and Shamshi had called on Kazakh activists and members of the public to write letters to the delegation of the European Union to Kazakhstan, and had also themselves written multiple letters to the U.S. Embassy and other Western consular missions, urging them to stop the deportation.
A day after the Dec. 9 press conference, on International Human Rights Day, Kazakh national security officials detained Akhat and Shamshi, but did not a give a reason for their arrest.
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service, an Atajurt official named Guljan said that the two members of her group, which works to highlight the plight of ethnic Kazakhs held in internment camps in the XUAR, were likely detained because they had publicly protested the refusal to grant Musakhanuly and Alimuly asylum, and the decision to deport them to China.
“Kapar Akhat is one of the most important people working for Atajurt in [the capital] Nur-sultan (formerly Astana),” she said.
“He speaks very openly and forcefully about what’s happening, and it’s likely because of that [that he’s been detained]. He speaks to governments and all kinds of organizations, and on multiple occasions he has spoken onstage at events about the trials of Serikzhan and other activists,” she added, referring to Atajurt founder Serikzhan Bilash.
Bilash faced seven years imprisonment for “inter-ethnic incitement” after calling for an “information Jihad” against China’s policies in the XUAR, but accepted a plea bargain during his trial in his hometown of Almaty on Aug. 16 that restricts his activism in exchange for his freedom.
Guljan said that while there are “many reporters in Kazakhstan,” few people are willing to hold the country’s government to account for its actions in cases like that of Musakhanuly and Alimuly, so Shamshi decided to highlight the issue at two high profile conferences.
“He spoke passionately about the stories of these two men who fled to Kazakhstan, so it is maybe for this reason [that he was detained],” she said.
Guljan acknowledged that Atajurt “[doesn’t] know for sure” the reason for the arrests of Akhat and Shamshi, but said that the two men “don’t have access to lawyers.”
Orunbasari Bekzat Mahsutkhan, who has operated Atajurt in Bilash’s absence, told RFA that his organization has retained lawyers for the two and plans to file a formal lawsuit over their detention in a court of law.
“Kazakhstan national security … They’re making a lot of excuses, but there are no grounds for what they’re doing [to Akhat and Shamshi],” he said.
“They locked them up and they have yet to be released.”
Neighbors under fire
Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations have come under fire in recent years for targeting activists who have spoken out about, and Chinese nationals who have fled, Beijing’s policy of mass incarceration in the XUAR.
The situation is particularly sensitive in Kazakhstan, where nearly half a million ethnic Kazakhs now live after escaping persecution in the Chinese region.
Serikzhan Bilash had been under house arrest since being detained in March and flown to Nur-Sultan amid accusations from Chinese officials that he had "fabricated" the cases of fellow ethnic Kazakhs in XUAR camps he was documenting, in an arrest that was widely seen as having been made at Beijing's behest.
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service in August, Bilash said that Kazakhstan was forced to make an arrangement with regards to his case that satisfied both Beijing and the Western governments and rights groups that had called for his release since his detention earlier this year.
The plea bargain during his trial was a compromise, he said, adding that he believes the Kazakh government is likely to have secured financial assurances from Beijing for targeting him.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in August that Kazakhstan’s decision to force an internationally respected activist to limit his own freedom of expression “speaks volumes of the authorities’ disrespect for justice and rule of law” and demonstrates the country’s “readiness to sacrifice human rights to maintain good relations with its neighbour, China.”
The group called for authorities to drop the conditions on his release and urged Kazakhstan to “think beyond its ties with China to its obligations to respect and comply with international human rights law.”
Reported by Gulchehre Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.