On Tuesday, a court in Zaisan, Kazakhstan handed down its decision in the case of two ethnic Kazakhs who crossed over from Xinjiang last year.
Judge Shynar Ospanova ruled that 25-year-old Murager Alimuly and 30-year-old Qaster Musakhanuly would receive one-year sentences but would not be deported back to China. The judge also ruled that each day they pair has spent in pre-trial detention — since October 2019 — would count as two days in prison.
The ruling is the latest in a series of trials of ethnic Kazakhs who crossed into Kazakhstan illegally, fleeing harassment and possible detention in Xinjiang. In each case, Chinese authorities had seized the passports of the individual in question, making it impossible for them to cross the border legally. A number of ethnic Kazakhs have taken their chances with Kazakhstan rather than remain in China; so far, the gambit has paid off.
Last week, a court in Zharkent declined to deport Tilek Tabarikuly, handing him a six-month sentence and counting time served in pre-trial detention. In December, the same court in Zharkent gave a six-month sentence to Qaisha Aqan. The best known case, globally, is that of Sayragul Sauytbay who crossed illegally into Kazakhstan in 2018. After her trial, the court in Zharkent released her, though she had difficulty gaining asylum in Kazakhstan and subsequently left for Sweden.
Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly’s case has been closely watched by the media. That was no accident. After crossing into Kazakhstan on October 1, the two men appeared in a video testimony about the experience in Xinjiang that hit Facebook a little over a week later. The pair then went public in a press conference on October 14 and were subsequently arrested. The unregistered Atajurt, now operating under the name “Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri” (Real Atajurt Volunteers) to distinguish itself from a splinter faction that the government did register, has been working with the two men.
The case garnered even more attention after a Kazakh official in December said that they would be deported, despite the fact they’d already been granted asylum-seeker status. Authorities detained a pair of Atajurt activists after they held a press conference in December urging the state to reconsider any deportation plans.
There are clearly several sections of the Kazakh government with different stakes and views on this matter, from the courts to the security services to the top echelons of power. So far, the Kazakh courts have tilted toward leniency in handing out relatively short prison sentences or suspended sentences but deciding against ordering deportation back to China. In a sense, the independence of the Kazakh court system (not always so clear as in these cases) is Nur-Sultan’s best excuse for not bowing to Beijing’s demands.
Darkhan Dilmanov, the deputy chief of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee who made the comment in December that the pair would be deported, represents another node to consider: the security services. That community may more easily buy into China’s narrative about Xinjiang: that the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities there pose a potential extremist threat and the answer is internment and re-education.
Then there’s the upper levels of the Kazakh leadership to consider. In an interview with German news outlet DW in December, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pointed to “deliberate escalation” around the subject of ethnic Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang. He turned a question about negotiations on this issue between Kazakhstan and China into an answer about the U.S.-China trade war, commenting that “we understand that this is part of geopolitics…” The trade war could explain the U.S. government’s stepped up pressure on the Xinjiang issue in the final months of 2019, but Tokayev’s comment also dodged continued criticism from within Kazakhstan on this issue.