The families of ethnic minority Kazakhs detained in China's mass incarceration camps in its northwestern region of Xinjiang across the border from Kazakhstan say the U.S. Secretary of State was "in touch with" Beijing over the plight of their relatives.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Kazakhstan on Sunday to join Washington in pressing Beijing over its treatment of Muslim minorities, a sensitive matter for the Central Asian nation which has close ties with neighboring China.
Speaking on a visit to the capital Nur-Sultan, Pompeo said he had raised the matter in talks with his Kazakh counterpart Mukhtar Tleuberdi.
He said via Twitter that he had met with the families of ethnic Kazakhs detained in China, and praised Kazakhstan for not forcing asylum-seekers to return there.
Kazakhstan rights activist Serikzhan Bilash, who faced seven years imprisonment after he called for an “information Jihad” against China’s policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), said he knew of the representatives of five families who had met with Pompeo during his visit.
Serikzhan, founder of the Kazakh human rights group Atajurt, said Pompeo had met with five Kazakh families whose relatives were incarcerated in Xinjiang camps.
"These Kazakhs are all people that have been helped by Atajurt volunteers in the past, when their relatives in China were illegally held by the Chinese government and so on," he said.
"They have also previously written to U.S. officials, including Pompeo himself, and Congress, calling for assistance from the U.S. government."
Among those who met with Pompeo was Chinggis, whose wife Shawli is currently in a Xinjiang camp.
"There was one person there to represent each of the five families," he said. "We each of us told him about our situations, and he also personally questioned us about our situations."
"He asked very detailed questions about the situation of our family members back in China," Chinggis said. "[Pompeo] said he had been entrusted with three tasks by President Donald Trump on his trip to Kazakhstan, and that one of those tasks was to meet with us."
He added: "President Trump is very concerned about what we are going through."
He said Pompeo had assured the families that Washington is making representations to Beijing regarding the mass incarceration of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in the northwestern region.
"He said that they are in touch with the Chinese government on the issue of Xinjiang, and also in touch with the Kazakhstan government," Chinggis said.
'So many victims'
Also present at the meeting was the son of Haryula, a Kazakh man in his seventies, who was incarcerated in an internment camp by the Chinese authorities in March 2018 and later sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.
Haryula's son Akhat told RFA that Pompeo had promised to do everything in his power to help their families in Xinjiang.
"I told him that it wasn't just my family affected: there were so many victims back in [Tarbaghatay (in Chinese, Tacheng) prefecture's] Dorbiljin (Emin) county [where we come from]," Akhat said. "We have all of the evidence right here, and we gave it it all to them."
"They said they were very concerned about human rights and freedoms, and they expressed concern and solicitude for all of the Uyghur and Kazakh victims in Xinjiang," he said.
Several other Kazakhs with family in China used Pompeo's visit to reiterate appeals for assistance.
The sister of an imam from Tarbaghatay's Sawen (Shawan) county, Akhatbal, said her brother was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment last month after initially being detained in a "political re-education" camp on March 8, 2018.
She said his wife and three children are now struggling to get by financially in China, and called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to release him as soon as possible.
The sister of another Kazakh imam from Sawen county said he had been put in a camp in April 2018 and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment in January 2019.
The woman, who gave only a single name Farida, said her brother is currently serving the sentence at a prison in Tarbaghatay's Shikho (Wusu) city, and that she is very worried about his health.
Pompeo told his Kazakh counterpart on Sunday: "The protection of basic human rights defines the soul of a nation."
He said he had discussed "the plight of the more than one million Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs who the Chinese Communist Party has detained in Xinjiang just across the Kazakh border," as well as human trafficking, with Kazakh officials.
"The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this repression," Pompeo said.
"We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China; protect human dignity; just do what’s right."
China's embassy in Uzbekistan on Tuesday responded to Pompeo's comments about the plight of the Uyghurs with a statement dismissing them as "a lie" and warning that "any attempt to slander China and sow discord in friendly relations between China and the states of Central Asia is doomed to defeat."
Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
While the ruling Chinese Communist Party initially denied the existence of the camps, Chinese officials later began describing the facilities as residential schools that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage "radicalization," and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest that those in the camps are detained against their will with no judicial process 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.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.