For the first time, authorities admit that ethnic Kazakhs are persecuted in Xinjiang. The two asylum seekers tell their story to Bitter Winter.
by Leila Adilzhan
Readers of Bitter Winter are familiar with the story of Kaster Musakhan and Murager Alimuly. They are ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang, where they were persecuted for the sole reasons of clinging to their Kazakh identity. They escaped to Kazakhstan, where they were accused of crossing the border illegally and detained. The CCP then submitted Kazakhstan to strong pressures to have them deported back to China. On January 21, 2020, a Kazakh court in the city of Zaisan sentenced Musakhan and Alimuly to a year in prison on charges of having crossed the border between China and Kazakhstan illegally. At that time, Judge Shynar Ospanova said that, subtracting the time spent in the pre-trial detention center, the convicts should serve five months and 24 days in a minimum-security institution. The important point was that they were not deported back to China.
Musakhan and Alimuly have now served their sentence, and have been granted refugee status in Kazakhstan. “This, they tell Bitter Winter, means Kazakhstan government for the first time, officially confirmed and admitted the existence of the jail-like transformation through education camps in Xinjiang. It is particularly important.”
Reflecting on when, in October 2019, they crossed the Kazakhstan-China border illegally, and arrived in Almaty, they remember that, “We were very hungry, and came to one Kazakh home in the village near the border. There, we were fed and told that in Kazakhstan there was a human rights organization denouncing the Chinese camps called Atajurt, led by Serikzhan Bilash.”
So, Kaster and Murager left this house the next day, and arrived in Almaty. “We contacted Bilash’ organization. Serikzhan Bilash asked us to wear the Kazakh national takiya (hat), and make a video announcement. We declared ourselves refugees, and required the Kazakh government to give us asylum,” they remember. “We understand, they add, that the video was firstly published by members of Atajurt in Turkey for security reasons.”
On October 14, 2019, the Atajurt activists called a press conference in Almaty with local and foreign journalists. “After the conference, Kaster and Murager report, while we were going to the immigration police bureau of Almaty, we were arrested by Kazakhstan National Security. After the arrest, we had several court hearings, and at the last one, on January 21, 2020, we were sentenced to one year in jail. Considering the period of pre-trial detention, we were released on June 22, 2020.”
They continued to seek asylum. “On October 15, they tell Bitter Winter, thanks to the support we received from human rights activists in Kazakhstan and abroad, and to the efforts of our lawyer, Abdulla Bakbergen,we got a refugee document from the Akmola immigration department, valid from one year from October 16, 2020 to October 16, 2021. It is a provisional asylum. We are incredibly happy about it. But at the same time, we are worried about what will happen in one year. It is something new in Kazakhstan, and we do not really understand the legal implications.”
Serikzhan Bilash commented that, in his opinion, “the fact that Kaster and Murager got a refugee status in Kazakhstan is tightly connected with my activism in Turkey. After I moved to Turkey, I brought there a former detained in the Xinjiang camps, Gulzira Auyelkhan, and her testimony was very impressive. I worked with human rights organizations in Turkey and campaigned for Kaster and Murager, and also for Kaisha Akan. We plan to help them to obtain asylum in another country, as it happened with Sayragul Sauytbay, if this will prove impossible in Kazakhstan. We already have good contacts for this project. And we will not be intimidated by fake ‘human rights activists’ in Kazakhstan, who ask us to keep silent on these refugees.”