Kazakh jailed on spy charge in China seeks transfer to Kazakhstan

Chinese judicial authorities sentenced him to 20 years in prison in 2018.
By Shohret Hoshur for RFA Uyghur
2023.12.01
Kazakh jailed on spy charge in China seeks transfer to Kazakhstan Askar Azatbek in an undated photo.
Gauhar Kurmanalieva

UPDATED at 6:15 P.M. ET on 12-01-2023

Askar Azatbek didn’t realize that his friendship with a Kazakh consular officer would one day land him in prison.

The ethnic Kazakh who lived in China’s far-western Xinjiang region had retired from his job at the Ili Prefecture Immigration Bureau and moved in 2016 to neighboring Kazakhstan, where he obtained Kazakh citizenship.

But on Dec. 7, 2017, when he visited the Khorgos International Center for Boundary Cooperation, a special international trade zone on the Kazakhstan-China border, he was arrested by Chinese police and taken into custody.

What he got was a 20-year sentence for “divulging state secrets.”

Azatbek’s alleged crime involved guiding the consular officer around several dam construction sites near the Ili River in Xinjiang, some of which were in places in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture that attracted tourists, said his older sister, Gauhar Kurmanalieva, who lives in Kazakhstan.

“He’s been in jail for about six years now,” she said.

While many Muslims — Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic groups in Xinjiang —faced arrest and detention on charges of “national separatism” and “religious extremism” in 2017 — the year that Chinese authorities began holding them en masse against their will in “re-education” camps or prisons — others, like Azatbek, were held on unusual and unforeseen offenses. 

Azatbek, 47, had headed to Kazakhstan on his own at first, but planned to eventually relocate his wife and children who lived in Ghulja, a major city in Xinjiang called Yining in Chinese, Kurmanalieva told Radio Free Asia. 

After his arrest, Kurmanalieva made inquiries into her missing brother’s whereabouts for a year and discovered he had been accused of engaging in espionage for Kazakhstan. She also learned about her brother’s verdict handed down by the Ili Prefectural Court.

Visits to dams and reservoirs

According to the verdict, when Azatbek worked in Ili Prefecture, he struck up a friendship with Daniyar Serikbayev, who worked at Kazakhstan’s consulate in Urumqi. But he was unaware that Serikbayev also worked for the country’s National Security Commission, the government intelligence agency. 

Through Serikbayev, Azatbek secured visas for himself and others. Serikbayev also accompanied Azatbek on his visits to various water reservoirs and dam projects around the Ili River. He photographed the construction and key locations during the visit, while Azatbek provided details about the projects. 

The court ruling, supported by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Department of Water Affairs and the regional and ministerial offices of China’s state security agency, classified the photos and project information as state secrets. 

The verdict said Azatbek knowingly committed the crime of “divulging state secrets,” recognizing Serikbayev’s affiliation with Kazakhstan’s National Security Commission and the confidential nature of the water project information.

Bextiyar Omar, who manages the Uyghur Transitional Justice Database from Norway said Chinese authorities crossed the border to arrest Azatbek, but during their interrogation, they did not find evidence of criminal activity, and in response to the political climate at the time, fabricated the charge against him. 

He also noted that the water projects are public facilities, and said the case is another illustration of the mass arrests of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in 2017.

The Embassy of Kazakhstan in Beijing recently informed Kurmanalieva that Azatbek was serving his sentence in a prison in Gansu province. 

Embassy officials first visited him this Jan. 18 and again six months later to ensure that he was in good health, she said. 

“My brother sent a letter to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking to be transferred to a Kazakh prison,” Kurmanalieva said, adding that Azatbek did this during the diplomats’ second visit.

Because Azatbek is a Kazakhstan citizen held in a foreign prison, the embassy officials said they wanted to transfer him to Kazakhstan.

When contacted by RFA, the Ili Prefecture Immigration Bureau refused to comment on Azatbek’s situation, saying that he had retired years ago.

“No one attended his court hearing,” said one employee. “We don’t know anything. If you want to inquire about this, ask the related government organizations.”

Mass detentions

During the peak of the mass detentions, authorities in Xinjiang transferred many Muslim prisoners to heavy-security facilities in Gansu and other provinces, RFA reported in 2019. That same year, RFA also reported that as many as 1,200 Uyghurs were detained in a jail in Gansu after being secretly transferred under the cover of night from political “re-education camps” in Xinjiang.

An employee of the prison administration department in Gansu province told RFA that inmates transferred from Xinjiang are not typical criminals and that they are incarcerated in every detention facility in the province. 

“These transferred prisoners are not allowed to be in touch with anyone,” the employee said. “No one is allowed to get close to them.”

The Kazakhstan government maintains that Azatbek is innocent, and Astana is still trying to have him released.

“Work is going on between Kazakhstan’s and China’s related offices and ministries about my brother’s case,” Kurmanalieva said. “But it scares me they are going to stretch this whole discussion for another five years.”

Kazakhstan’s embassy in Beijing did not respond to RFA’s emailed requests for comment.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

Corrects headline to say that the detainee is a Kazakh.

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