The trial in Kazakhstan of two ethnic Kazakhs who smuggled themselves across the border from China began this week and drummed up a robust attendance among supporters of the defendants, despite the remote location of the courthouse.
The case will be closely watched as a test of the resolve among hardliners in the Kazakh security apparatus to stick to their pledges to repatriate ethnic kinfolk seeking refuge from the repression taking place in China’s Xinjiang region.
Kaster Musakhan and Murager Alimuly, both Chinese nationals, were arrested on October 14, shortly after addressing a press conference in Almaty in which they revealed how they had illegally crossed into Kazakhstan and that they were applying for asylum. The pair say they were subjected to ill-treatment in China.
Theirs is just one of several cases to have posed a quandary for authorities in Nur-Sultan, who have at times proven clumsy in balancing their desire to maintain cordial ties with Beijing while placating activists and citizens enraged by the mass interment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
The deputy head of the National Security Committee, or KNB, Darkhan Dilmanov, has signaled that the government is intent on taking a hard line. In an interview published on the KNB’s YouTube channel in December, Dilmanov said that Musakhan and Alimuly had “no chances” of remaining in Kazakhstan and that they would be returned to China in line with an agreement between the two countries. The pair face potential death sentences in their home country.
The trial is taking place in Zaisan, an intensely remote town near where the unlawful border crossing is said to have occurred. The opening hearing on January 6 was quickly adjourned and a subsequent session appointed for January 21.
The swift adjournment, which arrived around 90 minutes into proceedings, dismayed the dozens of people who have traveled vast distances in a gesture of solidarity. Zaisan is around an eight-hour drive from the nearest city, Ust-Kamenogorsk, which is in turn hundreds of kilometers away from any other major city.
Defense lawyer Lazzat Akhat told Eurasianet by telephone that she had filed a motion for the judge to be recused after he refused to allow her to speak during the hearing.
“He kept on going in and out of the courtroom as if he was consulting with someone. I think (the authorities) were spooked that so many people came,” Akhat said.
In its account of the first hearing, RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, reported that the defendants spoke about their time in incarceration in Xinjiang and how they have been threatened with imprisonment at one of the region’s now-infamous internment camps.
Public understanding of what is believed to happen in those camps, which the Chinese authorities insist have been misrepresented by Western media and activist accounts, was greatly enhanced during the 2018 trial in Kazakhstan of another ethnic Kazakh, Sayragul Sauytbay. Unlike Musakhan and Alimuly, she crossed into Kazakhstan through an official border crossing, but used forged papers to do so.
On that occasion, last August, the court in the eastern town of Zharkent appeared to buckle under public scrutiny and allowed Sauytbay, who had spent two months in detention, to go free. The judge ruled at the same time that she was not liable for deportation.
Sauytbay was also denied asylum by Kazakhstan, but was later allowed to leave the country and resettle in Sweden, where she now lives with her husband and two children.
At the end of last year, another court ruled to spare Kaisha Akan jail time after she admitted paying a bribe and disguising herself as a trader in order to reach Kazakhstan via the Khorgos border crossing in May.
Akan’s lawyer Aiman Umarova told Eurasianet that she is hopeful Akan will succeed where Sauytbay failed by becoming the first person from Xinjiang to receive asylum in Kazakhstan.
Yet another man, Tilek Tabarikuli, is currently facing trial in Zharkent for entering the country illegally. His first hearing was to take place on January 5, but the opening of the trial was postponed to January 16 for reasons unclear.
The fourth case – that of Bagashar Malikuli, who said he entered Kazakhstan illegally in January 2017 but only applied for asylum seeker status this year, is yet to go to court.
While these new cases offer potential for embarrassments in Chinese-Kazakh bilateral relations, the activism they inspire represents a headache for the Kazakh regime.
The new trials in Zharkent and Zhaisan have coincided with the end of court-imposed restrictions on the movements of Xinjiang-focused rights advocate Serikzhan Bilash. His arrest last year on charges of extremism had threatened to energize and unify disparate civic groups in opposition to the government.
But that energy was sapped when Bilash was freed by a court in August following a plea bargain that involved him renouncing his commitment to activism.
In a phone conversation on January 6, however, Bilash told Eurasianet that he believed the agreement nonetheless allows him to continue working as “an ordinary member” of the unregistered Atajurt group that he once led.
“There are so many new cases now, so many injustices. I will continue my work until they arrest me again, if need be,” he said.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.