Baibolat Kunbolatuly is one of the millions of Muslims from China's western Xinjiang region who has a family member imprisoned or in an internment camp amid Beijing’s oppressive campaign against Muslims.
The 40-year-old Kunbolatuly has been staging protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Nur-Sultan and the consulate in Almaty since early 2020, always holding a portrait of his younger brother, Baimurat.
A naturalized Kazakh citizen, Kunbolatuly has been seeking information about his brother, who vanished in Xinjiang three years ago.
Locked Up In China: The Plight Of Xinjiang's Muslims
Radio Free Radio/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.
But Kunbolatuly’s protests came to an abrupt end when he was detained and sent to 10 days of "administrative arrest" on February 10 for breaching laws on protests.
Unsanctioned rallies -- including solo protests -- are banned in Kazakhstan.
Kunbolatuly says that, while in custody, he came under pressure from officials who demanded that he end his campaign.
He adds that officials threatened that he might “end up like Dulat Aghadil,” a prominent Kazakh activist who died in custody from an alleged heart attack last year in a death that raised suspicions of foul play.
“An official told me: 'Your heart might stop, too,'” Kunbolatuly told RFE/RL after his release.
He says officials told him that his actions could harm his children’s future.
“They told me: 'When your children grow up, they might want to work in government agencies, but they won’t be able to do so [because of your actions]. Then your children would hate you. You’re causing them to suffer,’” Kunbolatuly said.
Officials at the detention facility in Almaty refused to comment on Kunbolatuly's charges when contacted by RFE/RL.
Kunbolatuly admits that he is worried about the potential impact his actions could have on his family if he continues his campaign and is rearrested.
“I think about what would happen to my children if I were to die [in prison]," he says. "What happens to my elderly parents who are already suffering because of my [brother's disappearance]?”
'We Don't Know If He's Still Alive'
Kunbolatuly lives in a modest apartment in Almaty with his wife and their three children. He arrived in Kazakhstan in 2002 and received a passport six years later.
Kazakhstan offers citizenship to ethnic Kazakhs who return to their ancestral country. Thousands of ethnic Kazakhs moved from China to Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 2005, Kunbolatuly’s parents left China to join him in Kazakhstan. Close family members and other relatives followed them.
His brother, Baimurat, decided to return to Xinjiang in 2012 to look after an elderly aunt. Initially, Baimurat would frequently call or exchange texts with his family in Kazakhstan.
But the family soon lost contact with him. The aunt and other relatives also didn't respond to Kunbolatuly’s calls and letters.
Many people in Xinjiang are afraid to keep in touch with their relatives abroad because even answering a foreign phone call could land them in jail.
The only information Kunbolatuly was able to get about his brother over many years were from other ethnic Kazakhs who would manage to call someone in Xinjiang who knew something about him.
Kunbolatuly said he heard from someone that Baimurat was sent to one of China's notorious internment camps. Another rumor had it that Baimurat was forced to teach Mandarin to ethnic Kazakhs being held at a camp. Baimurat was fluent in Mandarin, which many ethnic minorities in Xinjiang don’t speak, his brother recalls.
Kunbolatuly says he doesn’t know if what he heard about his brother’s fate is true. “I don’t even know if my brother is still alive or not,” he adds.
Right groups say about 1 million people -- almost all of them from Muslim minority groups, primarily Uyghurs -- have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang.
There are widespread reports of systematic torture, starvation, rape, and even forced sterilization of the people being held in the vast camps, which are located behind barbed wire and watchtowers.
In January, the United States declared that China has committed genocide in its repression of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities.
Beijing rejects the claims and says the camps are "vocational training centers" where people voluntarily attend classes.
Message From Embassy
After years of waiting for a message from his brother and looking for information about him, Kunbolatuly had had enough.
He began a protest in front of the Chinese Consulate in Almaty as well as at the embassy in the capital, Nur-Sultan, in 2020, asking that Chinese officials provide information about his missing brother.
He eventually got a text message from the embassy that read: “On March 20, 2012, your brother shared content on the Chinese social [media] site Baidu Tieba that incited ethnic strife. Therefore, on April 11, 2018, a city court…in Xinjiang sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He is currently serving his sentence.”
Kunbolatuly says he thoroughly studied all social-media posts shared by his brother and didn’t find a single message that could even remotely be linked to “inciting ethnic strife.”
He also doesn’t know why it took six years for Chinese authorities to target his brother over the alleged post. Kunbolatuly didn’t receive any further comment from Chinese diplomats.
There are many other ethnic Kazakh natives from Xinjiang who protest in front of China's embassy and consulate in Kazakhstan.
Their stories are similar to Kunbolatuly's: They, too, are desperate to discover the fate of their loved ones who disappeared in Xinjiang. They, too, don’t know if their relatives are dead or alive, if they are in prison or being held in the internment camps.
Kazakhstan is reluctant to condemn the widely documented human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The Kazakh government says it doesn’t interfere in China’s treatment of its own citizens, calling it an internal matter.
The largest country in Central Asia is also wary of harming its relations with Beijing, a major investor in Kazakhstan’s vast natural resources and other sectors of the economy.
Kazakh authorities have been criticized for putting pressure on activists who call on the government in Nur-Sultan to speak up about the plight of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Like Kunbolatuly, several others have been detained by police for protesting in front of Chinese diplomatic offices. The Internet signal often disappears or weakens in certain areas when protesters gather so they cannot organize or post photos or reports online.
Kunbolatuly says his Facebook account was first hacked into and then deleted while he was livestreaming a demonstration by ethnic Kazakhs near the Chinese Consulate in Almaty on March 16.
An RFE/RL correspondent who was friends with him on Facebook confirms that he can no longer find Kunbolatuly’s account. Kunbolatuly says he has also lost access to his e-mail account.
Almaty police, meanwhile, are always pushing the protesters away from the consulate, demanding they keep at least 50 meters from the building.
Despite the pressures, the Kunbolatuly family is determined not to stay silent. When Kunbolatuly was in detention, his mother, Zauatkhan Tursyn, joined with the other protesters in Almaty.
The family also says it has not lost hope that one day Baimurat will be freed and join his family in Kazakhstan.
Until then, the Kunbolatulys say they will continue to demand answers from Beijing.