His brother is in jail in China for affirming his Kazakh identity. He believed he was free to protest in Almaty. He learned he was not.
by Leila Adilzhan
The brother of Baibolat Kunbolat, an ethnic Kazakh Muslim, is in one of the dreaded transformation through education camps in Xinjiang. Kunbolat counted himself fortunate, as he had moved from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan and received a Kazakh passport. He believed he was now in a country where he can protest and advocate for his brother without fear of being arrested. He was wrong.
On February 8 and 9, 2021 he was part of a group who went picketing in front of the Chinese consulate in Almaty, asking to “end the genocide” of the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang and release prisoners of conscience, including Kunbolat’s brother. However, Kunbolat was arrested and placed under administrative arrest for 10 days. A court in Almaty on the evening of February 9 issued a ruling calling him guilty of “violating the law on the procedure for organizing and holding peaceful assemblies.”
On February 8 and 9, among those who protested several relatives of ethnic Kazakhs detained in the transformation through education camps in Xinjiang and of others who, though having a Kazakh passport, had it confiscated while in Xinjiang and were not able to return to Kazakhstan. Others were not arrested, though, while Kunbolat was.
On February 1, the court had issued a warning to Kunbolat for “violating” the procedure for holding peaceful assemblies. But, after this incident, he and others had submitted a statement to the head of the Almaty city, Bakytzhan Sagintayev, explaining their picket will be entirely peaceful. They received a refusal letter in response, but decided to protest in front of the Chinese consulate anyway.
Kunbolat told reporters that his younger brother was detained in March 2018 in the village of Karagash in Kulja County, Xinjiang, and sent to a transformation through education camp. He was sentenced to 10 years of detention for unknown charges.
Kunbolat told Bitter Winter that the Kazakh Foreign Ministry answered his requests for help by stating that the situation of his brother is “an internal affair of China.” Kunbolat also contacted Chinese diplomats, who did not provide any answers.
Compared to the 10 years of detention his brother was sentenced to in China, 10 days in jail in Kazakhstan may seem a lesser punishment for Kunbolat. However, what is at stake is the freedom of assembly in Kazakhstan, and the question of the pressures China is able to exert on the Central Asian state.
After Baibolat’s arrest, his mother, Zauatkhan Tursyn, went to the Chinese consulate in Almaty to intercede for her other son, who is detained in Xinjiang. She told Bitter Winter that, while they were picketing, the security entered the building and came out with a device on his hand. After, this all the protesters’ phone and Internet connections disappeared. Zauatkhan Tursyn and her husband cannot reconcile themselves with the idea of having now two sons in jail, one in China and the other in Kazakhstan.