Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese woman who blew the whistle last year on the Chinese government’s massive internment camps in Xinjiang, has reportedly left Kazakhstan. According to Sauytbay’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova, Sauytbay and her family left for Sweden on June 3.
Sauytbay came into the international spotlight last summer. In late May 2018, she’d been arrested at Beijing’s behest after crossing illegally into Kazakhstan, where her husband and two children have citizenship. In damning testimony last July, 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 said.
At the time, the Chinese government was stridently denying the existence of mass internment camps in Xinjiang, despite mounting international attention to the facilities, which scholars have estimated hold more than a million people — Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minority groups.
The Chinese government now acknowledges the camps as “vocational centers,” but when Sauytbay took the stand in her surprisingly open trial last summer, hers was one of the first intimate accounts of the camps.
In August, a court in Zharkent — a Kazakh city near the border with Xinjiang — convicted Sauytbay of crossing the border illegally, but declined to order her deportation. While Kazakh authorities did not deport Sauytbay, the state similarly wavered on granting her asylum. In October 2018 she was denied asylum by Kazakhstan.
By attempting to placate a public that had taken interest in Sauytbay’s case without antagonizing Beijing, Kazakh authorities were trying to thread the proverbial needle. But while Sauytbay’s case was unique in its international footprint, it was far from an isolated incident. Kazakhstan had been (and continues to take) a quiet diplomatic approach toward the Xinjiang issue, focusing on Kazakh citizens rather than ethnic Kazakhs more broadly.
Nur-Sultan’s previous policies — particularly a resounding post-independence call for ethnic Kazakhs to come home, the Oralman (Returnee) program — precipitated growing disquiet with the state’s intransigence. Kazakh citizens with families in Xinjiang had already begun to organize, but the Sauytbay case brought much greater international attention. Serikzhan Bilash, himself an oralman and naturalized Kazakh citizen, had formed an organization called AtaJurt in the spring of 2017. His group began recording testimonies from Kazakhs whose relatives had disappeared in Xinjiang. They organized letter writing campaigns and spoke to journalists from around the world.
But as attention to Xinjiang increased, so did the pressure on Bilash. He was arrested earlier this year and is presently under house arrest, facing extremism charges. (In the May 2019 issue of The Diplomat Magazine Nazira Kozhanova explained in detail the accusations lobbed at Bilash and the difficult position Kazakhstan finds itself in with regard to China.)
Sauytbay’s status as an asylum seeker was extended twice as she appealed the state’s denial. Sauytbay may have better luck seeking asylum in Sweden than Kazakhstan. At the same time, as AFP noted, “[c]hoosing Sweden as a destination could stoke tensions between Stockholm and Beijing” — relations already strained by the detention of publisher Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen.