On Wednesday, a court in Zharkent, Kazakhstan — near the border with China’s Xinjiang — convicted Sayragul Sauytbay of illegally crossing the border, but ordered her release with a six-month suspended sentence and direction to regularly check in with police.
Most critically, Sauytbay will not be deported to China.
Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen, was arrested on May 21 by Kazakh authorities at Beijing’s behest for illegally crossing the border to join her family — a husband and two children, who have been living in Kazakhstan since 2016 and became Kazakh citizens last year while Sauytbay continued to work in China.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In court on July 13, Sauytbay explained that she had been working in “what is called in China a political camp” since the beginning of 2018. “In fact, it is a prison located in the mountains,” Sauytbay continued. “This political camp is actually a camp for ethnic Kazakhs, and where I worked there were all ethnic Kazakhs. I worked at one such camp and others told me that there were two more.”
Such testimony — about “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, which Beijing denies the existence of — put Sauytbay at risk and Astana in a bind.
Sauytbay’s lawyers, who did not deny that she had crossed the border illegally, urged the court to not deport her. Abzal Kuspanov, Sauytbay’s lawyer, told the AFP in July, “We are not saying that she has not committed a crime by violating state borders using false documents. 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 we do send her back, this person will simply disappear.”
According to The Guardian’s Lily Kuo, “Supporters in the courtroom broke into applause and cheered after the verdict was announced.”
Judge Dinara Quiqabaeva, in reading out the ruling, said the sentence was suspended due to the “exceptional circumstances of the case.”
As reported by RFE/RL, the judge went on to say: “Taking into account the fact that the defendant had to commit the crime because it was the only way for her to reunite with her family, the crime cannot be considered serious.”
Sauytbay left the courthouse with her family, smiling, RFE/RL reports. She was greeted by a crowd chanting “Long live Kazakhstan!” and “Sairagul is our hero!” On Twitter, Human Rights Watch’s Mihra Rittmann said it was an “amazing scene” outside the courtroom.
“When I came to Kazakhstan, I had a feeling that I am on my own. Now I am confident that it is not true,” Sauytbay said upon leaving the court. “I have my people, my nation, my homeland that can stand for me! Thank you! Long live Kazakhstan!”
The conclusion of the trial was warmly welcomed. Serikzhan Bilash, a local activist told The Guardian, “I think it’s a very good judgment. This is a first in Kazakhstan. This evening we will celebrate.”
Last week, I noted that Kazakhstan’s options were few, “and boil down to the basic choice between deporting Sauytbay — who would all but assuredly be disappeared into one of the camps she discussed in open court or worse — or not doing so.”
The case put Kazakhstan in a bind, caught between international political and economic concerns — China is one of Kazakhstan’s largest trading partners — and domestic pressure. Existing anti-Chinese sentiments have been inflamed by news of “re-education” camps in Xinjiang imprisoning ethnic Kazakhs and the release of a handful of Kazakh citizens detained in China.
I wrote last week that “international relations may be multifaceted, with Astana’s leaders befuddled by a tangled web of political, economic and social considerations, but the Kazakh public may view the matter more simply: Is Kazakhstan going to choose China over Kazakhs?”
That choice appears to have been made. Sauytbay has applied for asylum in Kazakhstan.