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International Relations

Kazakhstan-China deportation case sparks trial of public opinion

Kazakhs demand Astana protect woman who exposed Beijing's 'state secrets'

Chinese and Kazakh flags flutter in Tiananmen Square in June, marking Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's visit to Beijing. Sayragul Sauytbay was detained at China's request.    © AP

ZHARKENT, Kazakhstan -- The trial of an ethnic Kazakh woman from China on charges of illegally crossing the border between the countries has become a major headache for the government in Astana, which finds itself caught between Beijing and its own public.

China is demanding that the woman, Sayragul Sauytbay, be deported back to China, where her lawyer believes she would face the death penalty for exposing "state secrets" concerning "re-education camps" for Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. The case is feeding anti-Chinese sentiment in Kazakhstan and, depending on the result, could spark widespread protests.

"This is not just Sayragul's trial, as many ethnic Kazakhs abroad are watching it and thinking how our rights will be protected if we move to Kazakhstan," said Amirzhan Kosanov, a prominent opposition leader.

Sauytbay was detained by Kazakh authorities at China's request and is being tried for crossing the border on forged documents in March. The trial at the Panfilov District Court, in the border town of Zharkent, has been jampacked with activists, public and political figures and ordinary supporters of the woman.

The proceedings had been expected to wrap up this past Monday but are now set to continue until Aug. 1.

The defendant has admitted her guilt and the defense sought a plea bargain to avoid deportation, but the prosecution rejected even the possibility of negotiating. In response, the defense submitted a last-ditch motion citing the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, extending the trial.

Sauytbay, a member of the Communist Party of China, made the illegal crossing to reunite with her husband and two children, who have been living in Kazakhstan since 2016. The Chinese authorities had refused to let her leave, seizing her passport and demanding that she persuade her family -- by then Kazakh citizens -- to return to China. 

Sauytbay said her family would have been imprisoned had they complied.

Sauytbay is on trial for illegally crossing the Kazakh-Chinese border, and her lawyer says she could face the death penalty if she is deported to China. (Photo by Naubet Bisenov)

"From the beginning of 2018 I worked in what is called in China a political camp," Sauytbay told the court on July 13. "In fact, it is a prison located in the mountains. This political camp is actually a camp for ethnic Kazakhs, and where I worked there were all ethnic Kazakhs. I worked at one such camp and others told me that there were two more."

Explaining why she fears to return, she said: "That I came to Kazakhstan and told the court about the political camps, the number of inmates, the ethnic composition and the situation there already means I am revealing state secrets."

The charges carry a fine of around $7,500 or one year in prison and deportation from Kazakhstan. The trial is now a battle to prevent that last outcome.

China is home to about 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, most of whom reside in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. After Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, over 88,000 ethnic Kazakhs moved from China to their motherland in the years through 2015. 

While the world has long known of repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, pressure on ethnic Kazakhs largely started after Chen Quanguo became secretary of the Communist Party's regional branch there in August 2016.

Chen is known for the harsh ethnic policy he imposed in Tibet. Since he took charge of Xinjiang, ethnic Kazakh emigration from China has surged: 3,184 people made the move in 2017, following in the footsteps of 2,103 the previous year. Only 628 emigrated in 2015.

Now, though, Kosanov believes the Kazakh authorities' handling of the border case has tarnished the country's image.

"The current standing of Kazakh authorities is very low, and from the social, economic, corruption and political points of view they have lost people's respect," he said. "If the authorities cannot solve Sayragul's case using all their constitutional, diplomatic and international powers, their domestic reputation will suffer further."

Sauytbay's supporters gather in front of the courthouse on July 23. (Photo by Naubet Bisenov)

At the same time, Astana faces the challenge of keeping Sinophobia in check. Kazakhstan saw an unprecedented wave of social unrest after land reforms were perceived as selling Kazakh farmland to the Chinese. 

"Sayragul's case may well trigger large-scale domestic protests," Kosanov said.

There are signs that the anger is building. Earlier this month, about 100 Kazakh men broke into a facility housing Chinese workers in the southern region of Turkistan and threatened them with violence if they failed to leave the country by the following evening.

Rysbek Sarsenbayev, a brother of the late opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, who was murdered in an execution-style political killing in 2006, said the interest in Sauytbay's trial shows ordinary Kazakhs have "become politically aware" and that this is a good thing for the country.

Hundreds of citizens have converged on the courtroom, and thousands more have signed open letters petitioning for her release.

"If their demands are not met then these people will revolt," Sarsenbayev said.

He said there have already been calls for large-scale rallies against Sauytbay's possible deportation to China. "This case should be solved justly without forcing the situation into complications," he said.

The delay in concluding the trial may work to Sauytbay's advantage.

Her lawyer, Abzal Kuspan, wants to declare her a political refugee as a way of winning her freedom, and has submitted documents to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Almaty.

"She is fully qualified for refugee status on all counts," Kuspan said. "If she receives refugee status, then in this case it will simply be impossible to either deport or extradite her."

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