ZHARKENT, Kazakhstan — The trial of an ethnic-Kazakh Chinese citizen accused of illegally entering Kazakhstan has taken on implications far beyond whether she will be reunited with her family near Almaty or deported back to China.
That’s because 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay has testified about the existence of a network of “reeducation camps” in western China where she says thousands of ethnic Kazakhs are incarcerated for “political indoctrination.”
Unlike others who’ve fled abroad, saying they’d been forced to endure dehumanizing indoctrination at such camps, Sauytbay was not a camp detainee. She was a camp employee.
Before crossing into Kazakhstan on April 5, Sauytbay had been the head administrator of a kindergarten — a position that, together with her membership of the Communist Party, technically made her a Chinese state official.
She says Chinese authorities had forced her to train “political ideology” instructors for reeducation camps in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
That, she says, gave her access to secret documents about China’s state program to “reeducate” Muslims from indigenous minority communities across western China — mainly Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and Hui.
She says she also witnessed the inner workings of the program while employed at a camp for ethnic Kazakhs in the region’s Mongol-Kuro District.
“In China, they call it a ‘political camp.’ Officially, this is a training center where people study Chinese ideology. But inreality, it’s a prison in the mountains,” Sauytbay told the Panfilov District Court in eastern Kazakhstan, which will decide whether she is sent back to China.
“They took me there to work at one camp in 2018,” Sauytbay testified to the court in the border town of Zharkent on July 13. “It was a political camp for ethnic Kazakhs. There were only ethnic Kazakhs while I was there. “
“I was told there were two other camps like this [for ethnic Kazakhs] in the area,” she said. “There were 2,500 people where I was. And I know that in the region there are other camps” with Muslims from other minority communities.
“The fact that I’ve arrived in Kazakhstan and am talking in court about the camps, the number of people there, and their ethnicities is considered a disclosure of state secrets” in China, she told the Kazakh court — adding that she expects “the most extreme” punishment if she is deported there.
Sauytbay also testified that ethnic Kazakhs are sentenced to death in western China on mere suspicion of a crime — noting the execution of one ethnic Kazakh woman for the “illegal transfer of information to Kazakhstan” after she’d sent video of a flag-raising ceremony in China to her relatives in Kazakhstan.
Two Chinese diplomats attending Sauytbay’s trial refused to answer RFE/RL’s questions about the case or respond to her testimony.
Chinese officials deny the existence of “reeducation camps.” But authorities in Beijing do say they are fighting against “three forces” within western China’s minority Muslim communities – separatism, Islamic extremism, and terrorism.
Laura Stone, the U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in April that at least “tens of thousands” of people have been detained in western China and sent to the “reeducation” centers.
Independent human rights groups have estimated that more than 1 million detainees are in or have passed through reeducation camps in the region.
Most are thought to be from China’s indigenous minority Muslim communities.
A study in May by Adrian Zenz at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology found online advertisements by the Chinese government seeking contractors to build or upgrade facilities across Xinjiang that would fit with the reeducation campaign.
Zenz’s study concluded that China has spent well over $100 million to build new camps in the traditionally Muslim region since 2016, when a new regional party chief arrived from Tibet and expanded a decades-old crackdown on Uyghurs into draconian controls against all of Xinjing’s minority Muslim communities.
Meanwhile, the rights group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in a study this week that Chinese government data shows that nearly 228,000 people were arrested on criminal charges in 2017 in Xinjiang under the new restrictions on religion.
The CHRD notes that China’s legal system has a conviction rate of over 99.9 percent, which guarantees that almost all indictments end in a conviction.
Radio Free Asia has reported on the incarceration of Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakhs at reeducation centers since 2017, as well as Kazakh citizens.
“The authorities force the detainees to accept this so-called education, which is political indoctrination,” Human Rights Watch China research Maya Wang told Radio Free Asia.
“They are forced to study Chinese characters, and anyone who challenges this arbitrary detention is punished, some physically, some by being locked up in isolation with no food or water,” Wang said.
The ruling expected by the Kazakh court after final arguments scheduled for August 1 will acknowledge how much credence Kazakh authorities are willing to officially give to growing evidence of the camps.
Sauytbay’s treatment also will set a precedent on whether Kazakhstan will comply with Beijing’s demands to return ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens, or whether Astana is prepared to challenge its giant neighbor in order to protect ethnic Kazakhs who flee China.
So far, Astana’s official response to complaints and the camps has appeared tepid, at best, with the Foreign Ministry saying in May that it had urgently requested “an objective and fair review of affairs and the release of those ethnic Kazakhs detained in China who have dual citizenship.”
Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said on May 29 that he had information about some 170 ethnic Kazakhs “experiencing difficulties” in China, including 12 who had become citizens of Kazakhstan under Astana’s fast-track citizenship program for ethnic Kazakhs from other countries.
Sauytbay’s husband, Uali Islam, and their two children became Kazakh citizens under that program in 2017 after fleeing China the previous year when authorities expanded their crackdown on Muslim minorities.
Sauytbay’s lawer, Abzal Kuspan, noted that she was detained by agents from Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (KNB) only after a warrant had been issued for her arrest by China.
Kuspan told RFE/RL after a July 23 hearing that the prosecutor did not reply to his request for a deal under which Sautybay would accept punishment under Kazakh law — up to one year in prison and a fine of $6,000 — as long as she is not deported.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has also not responded to a letter from Sautbay’s husband requesting that he grant her political asylum.
Kuspan says that bodes ill for her future — particularly since Sautybay is a citizen of China, and not Kazakhstan.
But he said he is satisfied the judge in the case is considering the legal arguments of the defense and the trial is being conducted in accordance with the rule of law.
“We are not saying that she has not committed a crime by violating state borders using false documents,” Kuspan said. “We have admitted that to the court and we are prepared to accept punishment. What we are saying is ‘Don’t give her back to China.’ If they do send her back, she will simply disappear.”
Kuspan also noted that Kazakhstan has signed international agreements on the protection of political rights and the prevention of torture that could keep her in Kazakhstan.
“The death penalty is all that awaits her if she returns,” he told RFE/RL. “In such a case, you absolutely cannot hand her over to a government on territory where what awaits her is death. These international agreements rank above our legal code and our national laws.”
Sauytbay told the court that she couldn’t travel to Kazakhstan with her family in 2016 because, as a state official of ethnic Kazakh descent, her passport had been confiscated to prevent her from fleeing.
She says her troubles in China began after authorities there learned her family had obtained Kazakh citizenship. She said that made it necessary for her to cross into Kazakhstan with falsified documents.
“The Chinese police oppressed me, warning me: ‘You won’t go to Kazakhstan. Your husband and children need to renounce their Kazakh citizenship and come here. Otherwise, you’ll be judged in court and sent to a camp.’ But if they had returned, they would have gone to prison,” Sauytbay said.