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Qaster Musakhanuly (left) and Murager Alimuly appear at a press conferences in Almaty in October.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Kazakhstan of "improperly" prosecuting two ethnic Kazakhs for crossing the border from China as they seek asylum in the former Soviet republic.

In a January 9 statement, HRW also called on the Kazakh authorities not to forcibly return Qaster Musakhanuly and Murager Alimuly, who were fleeing ill-treatment in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.

"The government should immediately drop charges of illegal border crossing, halt these proceedings, and guarantee that these men will not be sent back to China as long as their refugee claims are pending," said Laura Mills, Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW.

"Kazakhstan can take this opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike in the past, it is a country that upholds its international legal obligations, respects refugee rights, and won't return people to risk of torture," she added.

Musakhanuly, 30, and Alimuly, 25, crossed the Chinese-Kazakh border in October. They went on trial on January 6 in the remote eastern town of Zaisan, near the Chinese border.

The defendants have told the court that if returned to China, they would be sent to so-called "reeducation camps," where they will most likely face torture.

The judge abruptly adjourned the hearing until January 21 just two hours after its start, although dozens of witnesses and supporters had traveled there to testify on behalf of the two defendants.

In August 2018, the United Nations said an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other mostly Muslim indigenous ethnic groups in Xinjiang were being held in "counterextremism centers."

The UN said millions more had been forced into reeducation camps. China denies that the facilities are internment camps.

In August 2018, a court in the Almaty region refused to extradite Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen who was wanted in China on the same charges of illegal border crossing.

Sauytbay fled China in April and testified in a court in Kazakhstan that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang were undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of camps.

She testified that Chinese authorities had forced her to train "political ideology" instructors for reeducation camps, giving her access to secret documents about what she called a state program to "reeducate" Muslims from indigenous ethnic communities.

Although she was not extradited to China, Kazakh authorities did not allow Sauytbay to stay in Kazakhstan. She later was granted asylum in Sweden.

Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China's largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russian law enforcement authorities have “dramatically escalated the nationwide persecution” of Jehovah’s Witnesses over the past year.

“The numbers of house raids and people under criminal investigation have more than doubled, and 32 Jehovah’s Witnesses worshipers are behind bars for peacefully practicing their faith,” the New York-based watchdog said in a statement on January 9.

The statement said that “at least 313 people are facing charges, are on trial, or have been convicted of criminal ‘extremism’ for engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities, or are suspects in such cases.”

About two-thirds of them found out about their status as suspect or accused in 2019, it said.

HRW said authorities have carried out at least 780 house raids since 2017 in dozens of Russian cities -- more than half of them last year.

Eighteen people were convicted in 2019, nine of whom received prison sentences ranging from 2 to 6 years, for such activities as participating in prayer meetings.

Russia banned the religious group in April 2017 and deemed it an "extremist organization."

HRW said the authorities should reverse the ban and remove the “extremist” designation, which it said “blatantly violates” Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom and freedom of association.

They should allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to freely practice their faith, release those detained immediately, drop any outstanding charges, expunge all related criminal records, the watchdog said.

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