Kazakhstan court rules against deporting ethnic Kazakh to China

An ethnic Kazakh woman who faced deportation to China after crossing into Kazakhstan with forged documents has a won a reprieve in a signal that authorities were spooked by the simmering discontent fostered by the case.

RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyk, reported that a court in the eastern town of Zharkent ruled on August 1 to hand Sayragul Sauytbay a six-month suspended sentence for illegally crossing the border, meaning she could walk free. The judge also rule that Sauytbay would not be liable for deportation, as normally required by law in such cases.

The ruling came in response to a request for a suspected sentence from prosecutors — an almost unheard-of act of leniency for Kazakhstan’s justice system. In making her argument, prosecutor Arzygul Imyarova said Sauytbay had two underage children and that there were mitigating circumstances in the case.

Sauytbay’s decision to flee China was precipitated by the escalating campaign of intimidation against ethnic Kazakhs, which has taken on similar features to Beijing’s long-standing repression of Uyghurs.

In the summer of 2016, Sauytbay’s husband and children moved to Kazakhstan, where they received citizenship within the year. Kazakhstan’s government has a program to promote the relocation of ethnic Kazakhs from nearby nations. 

Sauytbay retained her Chinese citizenship and her membership in the Communist Party, but the emigration of her near relatives made her an object of suspicion, she told the court during her trial.

Other claims made during the court hearings trickled out into the broader public consciousness, even though most media in Kazakhstan have studiously avoided reporting the case in apparent compliance with Astana’s policy of avoiding confrontations with Beijing.

“In 2018, they sent me to work in a political reeducation camp in the mountains,” she told the court in a July 13 hearing. “Officially, this is a training center where people study Chinese ideology. But in reality this was a prison.”

Sauytbay said that her center held more than 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs — a revelation that elicited audible gasps in the courtroom.

“And I know that in that region, there were several other similar camps,” she said.

The case has placed Kazakhstan in a tricky predicament.

Ties with China, a major investor and business partner, are afforded top priority. Earlier reports of ethnic Kazakhs being maltreated in the neighboring nation have gone largely ignored by a government in Astana evidently intent on avoiding any wrinkles in the relationship.

But nationalist-minded people in Kazakhstan have grown more vocal in recent years and China-related issues have proven an effective rallying call for whipping up dissenting moods.

Authorities unwittingly sparked a wave of Sinophobic sentiment in late 2015 with the rushed passage of legislation to extend the maximum lease on farming land for foreigners to 25 years, up from 10 years. Although all foreigners were eligible to take advantage of the change, it was the Chinese that were made target of angry rhetoric in street protests that spiked the following spring.

The Sauytbay case had portended a potential repeat scenario, but the authorities have evidently found it preferable to deflate tensions by electing to decide against deportation — a move her lawyer said would have been tantamount to a death sentence.