ZAISAN, Kazakhstan — A court in Kazakhstan has ruled that two ethnic-Kazakh men from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang who are on trial for illegally crossing the border in October will not be deported to China.
The court in the far eastern town of Zaisan announced its decision in the high-profile case on January 21.
Judge Shynar Ospanova handed one-year prison sentences to Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly for illegally entering the country, but allowed them to stay in Kazakhstan, saying that they may face persecution back in Xinjiang.
The judge added that each day the two men spent in pretrial detention since October counts as two prison days, making them eligible for release in less than six months.
The 25-year-old Alimuly testified that he had been detained in Xinjiang for questioning and faced incarceration at a Chinese “reeducation camp.”
Musakhanuly, 30, said he had previously spent five years in such a camp in Xinjiang. In September, he said, he was told by Chinese authorities that he would be sent back to one of the camps.
The court’s ruling comes five days after another Kazakh court in the southwestern town of Zharkent decided that an ethnic-Kazakh man from Xinjiang, Tilek Tabarikuly, would not be deported to China after being charged with illegal border-crossing.
Tabarikuly asked the court not to send him back to China and testified that he had to flee the country even though it meant illegally crossing the border because he feared he would be treated harshly by Chinese authorities and because his parents were waiting for him in Kazakhstan.
In August 2018, the United Nations said an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other mostly Muslim indigenous ethnic groups in Xinjiang were being held in “counterextremism centers.”
The UN said millions more had been forced into reeducation camps. China denies that the facilities are internment camps.
Those conditions have prompted many ethnic-Kazakhs from Xinjiang in recent years to cross the border illegally in fear of staying in China.
In one of the most high-profile cases, a Kazakh court in August 2018 refused to extradite Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen who was wanted in China for illegal border crossing.
Sauytbay fled China in April and testified that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang were undergoing “political indoctrination” at a network of “reeducation camps.”
She added that Chinese authorities had forced her to train “political ideology” instructors for such reeducation camps. This, Sauytbay said, gave her access to secret documents about what she called a state program to “reeducate” Muslims from indigenous ethnic communities.
Although she was not extradited to China, Kazakh authorities did not allow Sauytbay to remain in Kazakhstan. She was eventually granted asylum in Sweden.
Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China’s largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.