An ethnic Kazakh Chinese national who was held for more than a year at an internment camp in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is in immediate danger of forced repatriation from Kazakhstan by authorities she says are working at the behest of Beijing.
Gulzire Awulqanqizi, a Kazakh woman who was held at the Dongmehle Internment Camp in Ili Kazakh (in Chinese, Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture’s Ghulja (Yining) city from July 2017 to October 2018, fled to neighboring Kazakhstan in December 2018 after being forced to labor in a glove factory inside the camp for three months at the end of her detention.
Awulqanqizi, who in May last year told RFA’s Uyghur Service that she and other detainees had been forced to eat pork against Muslim tradition and were appointed an hour of “crying time” every two weeks in the camp, on Dec. 26, 2019 posted a video to social media saying that she is in imminent danger of being deported to China, where she is likely to face persecution, detention, and even torture.
Speaking with RFA following her video appeal, Awulqanqizi said she learned from a source who she declined to name that she had been added to a list of people Beijing had asked the Kazakh government to return to China, although she acknowledged that she had not received any official notification about a potential deportation from Kazakh authorities.
“It’s possible that they’ll send me back to China after the start of 2020,” she said.
“The source who told me this said, ‘We’ve already received a list with your name on it and there’s a chance you’ll be sent back to China after the New Year, so you should seek help from a lawyer,’” she added, suggesting that the source is someone with knowledge of Kazakh immigration affairs.
“I’m looking for assistance wherever I can find it.”
When asked whether she had been provided any documentation from the Kazakh government or the country’s courts informing her of her risk of deportation, Awulqanqizi said, “I haven’t received anything,” but that she feels certain her name is on a list that is being circulated in official circles.
“If [the source] didn’t receive a document, then how would they know my name is on the list,” she wondered. “That’s why I think [the authorities] have it and I am really worried.”
Awulqanqizi, who has a Kazakh green card, said she repeatedly applied for Kazakh citizenship over the course of the last year but has been repeatedly denied, and was recently informed by Kazakh immigration officials in the capital Nur-Sultan that her visa will soon expire.
“I don’t know why they are denying my request … I told them what I experienced in China,” she said.
In the meantime, Awulqanqizi said, she has applied to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) for assistance, as well as to rights groups such as Kazakhstan-based Atajurt, an organization that works to release ethnic Kazakhs from internment camps where authorities in the XUAR are believed to have detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
During her time in the Ghulja camp’s glove factory, Awulqanqizi has said she tried to document her experience with her mobile phone and forward photos to her husband, but her actions were discovered by authorities who accused her of “revealing state secrets” and punished her by handcuffing her and locking her in a confined space.
She told RFA that she believes China is targeting her in Kazakhstan because she continues to detail life in detention in the XUAR camps—a topic Beijing deems extremely sensitive because its policy of mass incarceration in the region has drawn widespread condemnation from the international community.
A spokesperson with the Kazakh Embassy in Washington declined to answer when contacted by RFA for comment on Awulqanqizi’s situation, referring questions to authorities in Kazakhstan.
But an Atajurt official named Guljan told RFA that Awulqanqizi’s concerns are valid because of the attention she has brought to the camps in the XUAR.
“Gulzire was one of the first people to reveal a lot of details about the camps to the international media, and she did the most of anyone, putting her heart and soul into it, so it’s very possible that she’s on this list,” she said.
Guljan said that Atajurt had been unable to track down any official document related to Awulqanqizi’s potential deportation, despite repeated attempts, as well as inquiries into why her application for citizenship had not been approved when most are greenlighted within six months.
She said his organization fears that Awulqanqizi could be accused by Kazakh officials of “inter-ethnic incitement,” much like Atajurt founder Serikzhan Bilash, who faced seven years imprisonment after he called for an “information Jihad” against China’s policies in the XUAR, but accepted a plea deal in August that restricts his activism in exchange for his freedom.
“It’s possible they could do something like that and kick her out—that’s what we’re worried about,” she said. “We have to protect her.”
Guljan said that Atajurt has found Awulqanqizi a “well-known lawyer” in Kazakhstan who believes she cannot be kicked out of the country because of her green card status, and who has recommended that she write a formal complaint about her application for citizenship and speak with U.N. representatives in Almaty, the country’s largest metropolis.
But she acknowledged that the risk of deportation is real, saying that while Kazakh officials pay lip service to protecting the rights of ethnic Kazakhs who have fled the XUAR, Kazakhstan’s court system is controlled by politics, and those in power are reluctant to do anything that might upset relations with Beijing.
“In Kazakhstan, law changes according to what the people in power want,” Guljan said.
“The situation in Kazakhstan is very urgent. China’s agents of soft power are at work here, and in addition, the rich Kazakhs—the people who’ve come here with money—have all been bought by China,” she added.
“They’ve got wool pulled over the eyes of people in the ministries, the higher-ups, the people in power.”
Atajurt recently told RFA that two of its activists arrested by authorities in Kazakhstan last month were likely detained because they challenged government plans to deport a pair of ethnic Kazakh Chinese nationals who fled persecution in the XUAR.
The two had spoken out about Qaster Musakhanuly and Murager Alimuly, who were formally accused in mid-October of illegally entering Kazakhstan after they called for asylum during a press conference at Atajurt’s office, and who Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee last month announced will be deported.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.