An ethnic Uyghur, once acknowledged by the U.N. as a refugee,
is set to be deported to China after a Kazakh court refused to grant him
political asylum, according to his brother.
Ershidin Israil, 38, fled to Kazakhstan in the aftermath of deadly riots in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and has been held by Kazakh authorities since June last year amid Chinese accusations he was involved in "terrorism."
Experts say the court ruling on Wednesday called into question Kazakhstan's adherence to international obligations in the face of increased pressure from neighboring China where Israil could be severely punished on his return.
Seeking political asylum in Kazakhstan may have been Israil’s last bid to stay out of China, whose anti-terrorism policy, according to rights groups, deliberately targets activists among ethnic minority communities such as Uyghurs and Tibetans.
If repatriated to his home country, he is likely to face harsh punishment in a specific case of informing RFA about the death in custody of a fellow Uyghur held by authorities for alleged involvement in July 2009 riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi.
His brother Enver Israil, who arrived in Kazakhstan three months ago, said he heard from his brother's lawyer that he was accused of being a terrorist by the Chinese police and that they had demanded his return.
"[The Chinese police] tortured a jailed protester to death and nobody is calling the Chinese terrorists, but my brother is accused of terrorism just because he told the media about the killing," he said in a phone interview Thursday from Almaty, the country’s largest city.
"Where is the justice?" he asked.
On Sept. 24, 2009, Israil fled on foot to Almaty from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), crossing the border without a passport after four nights of walking.
Chinese authorities in Ghulja, in Qorghas (in Chinese, Huocheng) county, Ili prefecture were searching for Israil for allegedly releasing details of the Sept. 18 beating death of Shohret Tursun, according to Israil’s sister-in-law.
Tursun was detained among a group of 40 Uyghurs in July 2009 around the time of ethnic riots in Urumqi that left some 200 dead.
His badly bruised and disfigured body was released to his relatives nearly two months later, prompting a standoff between authorities who wanted him buried immediately and family members who refused and demanded an inquiry into whether he had been beaten to death.
The family was forced to hold a burial for Tursun the following day.
In a previous RFA interview with Israil, he said he fled his hometown fearing harsh punishment from Chinese authorities as a two-time offender. Israil had previously served a six-year jail sentence in 1999 for "separatism."
After meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Almaty, Israil was granted refugee status in March 2010 and accepted for resettlement in Sweden that April.
But while making final preparations to leave Kazakhstan, a UNHCR official informed Israil that Kazakh authorities had refused to supply him with the necessary documents to leave the country.
On April 3, Israil was moved into an apartment guarded around the clock by Kazakh police officers while the UNHCR investigated the delay in his resettlement.
In June 2010, he was detained by local authorities and has since attended a total of five hearings on his application for refugee status, all of which rejected his bid and ruled that he must be returned to China.
‘A terrible track record’
Exiled Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said the Kazakh government is disregarding international law by moving to repatriate Israil.
She called the Chinese charges against him “an obvious abuse of the Geneva Convention rules,” adding that he had committed no crime aside from revealing how Uyghurs have been treated in the aftermath of the 2009 riots.
“I urge the U.N. and EU to take action," she said. “I would ask the Kazakh government to not forget our blood relations and to take into consideration the one million Uyghurs who are living in Kazakhstan."
Memet Tohti, the WUC representative in Geneva, said China is desperate to take Israil back to prevent him from talking about the abuses he had witnessed and in order to show other Uyghurs that they cannot defy the government and escape punishment.
"Ershidin was in jail for six years and he is aware of a number of tragic stories that have taken place in China's black jails," he said, referring to the country's growing number of unofficial detention centers which serve as holding camps for petitioners seeking redress against official wrongdoing.
"Secondly, Chinese authorities want to discourage Uyghurs in East Turkestan from taking part in the Uyghur freedom movement by showing them that they can get to them no matter in what part of the world they seek refuge."
Uyghur groups use the term “East Turkestan” to refer to a short-lived Uyghur government that existed before the communist takeover of Xinjiang or to assert their cultural distinctiveness from China proper.
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American attorney based in Washington, said Kazakhstan’s refusal to grant Israil political asylum is the latest example of the country bowing to Chinese pressure.
“Kazakhstan has a terrible track record of repatriating or forcibly removing Uyghurs to China who were suspected of being involved in any political activities, and history certainly will not be kind to Kazakhstan,” he said.
“Kazakhstan—being under the Soviet Union for several years and knowing how it feels to be oppressed—I think it’s time for Kazakhstan to enjoy their sovereignty and make a decision based on their international obligations, not on the pressure by neighboring countries.”
An uncertain future
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York- and Hong Kong-based group, said that as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional group for security and economic cooperation in Eurasia, Kazakhstan has a number of obligations to fellow SCO states, particularly China.
“These include forcible returns to China of any individual or group suspected of terrorism, separatism, or extremism, including individuals who may have been granted refugee status by UNHCR,” Hom said.
“China has designated Central Asia as a source of what it terms the 'East Turkestan' threat and has exerted intensified pressure on its neighbors, and most recently on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.”
Hom noted that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—both SCO member states—obstructed travel of Uyghur activists to attend a recent conference in the U.S., apparently to preserve their relationship with China.
Hom said that Israil could “disappear” if he is deported to China, like many others forcibly returned to the country.
“If he is subjected to any Chinese legal process, it will be within a system that is politicized, corrupt, nonaccountable, and marked by the complete absence of due process. The international community needs to act immediately to protect him and demand respect for his refugee status.”
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Xinjiang is a vast, strategically important desert territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The region has abundant oil reserves and is China's largest natural gas-producing region.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.