Authorities in Uzbekistan are holding an ethnic Kazakh man with Chinese nationality after he was denied permission to enter Kazakhstan, and his repatriation to China appears imminent, RFA has learned.
Businessman Qalymbek Shahman initially fled China, which has incarcerated at least one million ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs in "re-education" camps, on Jan. 4, arriving in Thailand, where he took a flight to Almaty in Kazakhstan, sources in Kazakhstan said.
Shahman then boarded a flight to Uzbekistan's Tashkent airport after being denied entry by the Kazakh authorities, a Kazakhstan-based rights group said.
He is currently stuck in a restricted area of the airport, according to a statement from the human rights group Atajurt.
An employee who spoke to RFA from the group said Chinese foreign ministry officials had demanded Shahman be handed over to them.
Repeated attempts to contact Shahman met with an unreliable connection that seemed to be affected by interference.
"I was born in Emin county in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region [XUAR], to a farming family," he said in a brief video message sent in lieu of a phone call. "I wanted to go to Kazakhstan, because China's human rights record was making life intolerable."
"I would have my ID checked every 50 to 100 meters [164 to 328 feet] when I was in Xinjiang," he said. "This made me extremely anxious, and I couldn't stand it anymore."
A friend of Shahman's told RFA that he remains in danger of repatriation to China, where he is faced with the threat of a "re-education" camp.
"This guy is in Tashkent airport right now, and the Chinese embassy is getting ready to take him away," the friend said. "The Tashkent police are planning to detain him."
Police ‘interfering in his life’
Shahman said he is a businessman who often accompanied foreign clients on tours around China, but that he was routinely humiliated by ethnic profiling at every turn.
"Whether it was getting on a plane, on a train or other public transportation, they would spend half an hour checking me out every time," he said in the video message. "When my clients from Russia and Kazakhstan would come and visit, the security guards would check my ID in front of them."
"My clients would ask me why, and I said it was the [government's] problem, [but] gradually my clients all stopped coming," he said. "The local factory owners would have nothing to do with me. They didn't want to work with me anymore."
Last year, Shahman moved to live in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, along with his Han Chinese wife and the couple's young son.
"He moved to Guangzhou to live with his wife, and he said that the local police were constantly interfering in his life," the Atajurt employee said. "They kept asking why he had suddenly moved to Guangzhou."
"Then they told his wife that she would have to watch him for them and report back to them on his every move," the employee said.
RFA tried one more time before publication to make contact with Shahman directly, but his cell phone was taken away by airport police.
He made two video clips explaining his situation, using a cell phone borrowed from a member of the airport cleaning staff.
One of the videos said that he was taken away by police less than three hours after arriving in the airport, and that businesses in the terminal building had been ordered not to serve him any food, on pain of being shut down.
The Atajurt employee said Shahman was already close to a mental breakdown, and had self-harmed by cutting his own neck in protest.
"The Chinese state security police are in Tashkent along with the Tajikistan security police," the employee said. "They are all at the airport."
"Shahman said he would be extradited to Thailand with three hours, and taken from there to Beijing, and that the Chinese government had paid for his flights," the employee said.
Detained against their will
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps — equating to 10 percent to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.