A picture taken on July 13, 2018 shows Sayragul Sauytbay, 41, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national and former employee of the Chinese state, who is accused of illegally crossing the border between the countries to join her family in Kazakhstan, sits inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in the city of Zharkent. Secretive "reeducation camps" that allegedly hold hundreds of thousands of people in a Muslim-majority region of western China have become the focus of a court case in Kazakhstan, which is also testing the country's ties with Beijing. / AFP PHOTO / Ruslan PRYANIKOVRUSLAN PRYANIKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Sayragul Sauytbay has requested asylum in Kazakhstan, saying she had been forced to teach prisoners in a Chinese internment camp © AFP

The trial of a Chinese citizen who fled to Kazakhstan has offered rare insight into China’s secretive internment system, with Beijing’s security campaign in the western region of Xinjiang increasingly putting neighbouring countries in central Asia on edge.

The trial, which is being held in the Kazakh town of Zharkent near the Chinese border, has featured the first public testimony describing China’s internment centres in Xinjiang, alarming Chinese officials who have long obscured their existence. 

Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh with Chinese citizenship, in April fled Xinjiang where she said she was forced to teach Chinese history to prisoners at an internment centre. She then requested asylum in Kazakhstan, where her husband and two children are citizens.

On May 21, Ms Sauytbay was detained by Kazakh security officials for allegedly crossing the border into Kazakhstan illegally — a charge that could see her deported to China. Friends and family say she is being targeted by the Chinese Communist party for possessing political secrets because of her employment at an internment centre.

Since 2016, China has intensified a security campaign in Xinjiang ostensibly aimed at countering Islamist and separatist terror. The crackdown has targeted Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group. Among the measures are a regional network of extra-legal internment camps that hold at least 500,000 of the region’s 11m Uighurs, according to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

“The people in Xinjiang definitely do not know the severe degree the centres have reached, how many have died [there] and how many have gone crazy. Those who know cannot say because once they do they will face consequences,” said Silamu Wuwali, Ms Sauytbay’s husband. “We are very worried for her physical safety.”

In her testimony, Ms Sauytbay said details about the operations of internment centres were classified as state secrets and their disclosure was punishable by execution. 

Deliberations were scheduled to end last week but have been extended to begin again on Wednesday after the judge rejected Ms Sauytbay’s plea bargain to face criminal charges in Kazakhstan rather than be deported to China.

“Ms Sauytbay is at a real risk of torture and ill-treatment and of arbitrary detention if returned to China,” her lawyers said in a statement. Kazakhstan is a party to both the UN Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which bans expelling a person to where they face a risk of torture.

As the clampdown intensifies, regional neighbours have been inadvertently swept up by China’s widening security dragnet. Particularly affected has been resource-rich Kazakhstan, one of China’s key partners in its Belt and Road Initiative.

For decades, ethnic Kazakhs crossed relatively freely between China and Kazakhstan. But since China’s security crackdown began in 2016, at least 10 Kazakh citizens have been detained in Xinjiang. Ms Sauytbay testified that she taught at a Xinjiang internment camp that was built to hold almost 2,500 Chinese Kazakhs.

Kazakh interest surrounding the trial has been such that it prompted China’s ambassador in Kazakhstan, Zhang Wei, to speak out in July.

“This year, we have noticed different individuals zealously campaigning about the so-called problems of the ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang,” he said in an interview with Tengrinews, one of the largest online news outlets in Kazakhstan. 

“They have done this on the internet and out in public, openly and secretly, inventing unfounded accusations with the evil intent of staining Xinjiang's image and grossly interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

Follow Emily Feng on Twitter @emilyzfeng

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