A pair of ethnic Kazakhs from China have said they illegally slipped into Kazakhstan earlier this week and that they now wish to apply for asylum.
Kaster Musakhan and Murager Alimuly, who are from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, say they were both subjected to years of harassment at the hands of Chinese authorities before deciding to flee.
The two young men said that they got into Kazakhstan on October 1 by climbing over a wire fence at an unmonitored section of the border and then walked to the village of Shilikti, which is located in a remote eastern corner of the country. Musakhan and Alimuly said they then travelled onward to Almaty.
The authorities had not reacted to the claims as of October 11. But this new episode is bound to prove a headache for a national leadership that has often struggled to accommodate its cordial relations with Beijing with the vocal nationalist activists campaigning for the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in China.
Musakhan and Alimuly shared the story in video testimonies posted to Facebook in which they likened their situation to that Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh woman who likewise entered Kazakhstan unlawfully in 2018. After being threatened with deportation back to China, Sauytbay was eventually granted leave to remain and has since been permitted to relocate to Sweden with her family.
These two men may find their efforts more complicated, however.
“This time China will push the Kazakh government twice as hard as they did with Sayragul Sauytbay,” a China-born Kazakh familiar with the situation told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “These two men are opening a Pandora's box. If China fails to bring them back, the Kazakhs in China will follow them. For China, it is a matter of principle.”
The two have, like Sauytbay before them, begun sharing accounts of mistreatment by the Chinese government.
“It became unbearable to live there,” Alimuly, 25, said in his direct-to-camera testimony about his time in one of the mass incarceration facilities in Xinjiang that Beijing has dubbed re-education camps. “They can put you in jail for just wearing a tubeteika [a traditional Kazakh cap].”
Alimuly said he was detained repeatedly by the Chinese police.
“The last time they arrested me was in September. They cuffed my hands and legs, seated me on an iron chair and tortured me for 24 hours,” he said.
Musakhan, 30, said in he had a spent four years and eight months in the camps.
“I cannot find the words to describe what I have seen there,” he said. “Kazakhs are under pressure in China. They are in prisons.”
Beijing strenuously denies the mounting international claims that it is implementing a systematic policy to obliterate the beliefs and customs of the ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other traditionally Muslim minorities that populate the country’s western regions. It insists the camps that have been scrupulously documented by activists and journalists over the last few years are intended as centers of vocational training.
Musakhan and Alimuly say they worked together in livestock trading. The former claimed to own his own slaughterhouse. They both are married and have children who are still in China.
Quizzed by a local journalist about whether he had considered how his families might get into trouble because of his escape, Alimuly said that he was left with no choice.
“Of course, I thought about them. I did not do this to save my own skin. I came here to ask for the protection of my family,” he said.
Activists rallying to the support of Musakhan and Alimuly have said that only by drawing international attention to their plight will they be able to avoid their swift return to China.
But Atajurt, the Almaty-based group that has proven the most successful campaigner for the cause of ethnic Kazakhs in China, is currently riven by infighting.
The government last month granted a group by that name registration to operate legally. But another wing of the same movement says the registered group is run by people who have been co-opted by the authorities. One Atajurt, which has been registered, retains the group’s original Almaty premises. The unregistered group controls the social media accounts and is the one that is intent on pursuing its defiant activism for the defense of Xinjiang Kazakhs.
Darkhan Umirbekov is a journalist based in Kazakhstan's capital.