A 58-year-old ethnic Kazakh man has emerged from a 17-year nightmare of Chinese imprisonment and "reeducation" to be reunited with his family in Kazakhstan.
Raqyzhan Zeinolla was welcomed at Almaty's international airport on April 9 by family members, including his wife and grandchildren he'd never met.
It was a precious moment of happiness for one of the many families caught up in Beijing's massive campaign of internment and forced assimilation targeting millions of Muslims in China's northwestern Xinjiang Province.
As a reminder of the ongoing repression, a group of fellow Xinjiang natives stood alongside Zeinolla's family at the airport, holding up photos of their relatives jailed or trapped in China. They see Zeinolla's case as a glimmer of hope.
Caught Up In A Crackdown
Zeinolla, a naturalized Kazakh citizen, traveled from Almaty to Xinjiang in 2004 for what was supposed to be a brief visit to see relatives and friends. The trip soon turned into a yearslong ordeal for him and his family.
"Chinese authorities accused him of being a spy and sentenced him to 13 years in prison," his wife, Farida Qabylbek, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.
She said her husband was an ordinary merchant who had never worked at any government agency nor been interested in political activism. She said the spying charge against Zeinolla stemmed from the fact that he helped to prepare documents for a group of around 20 young people in Xinjiang who were hoping to study abroad in Kazakhstan.
He spent the full 13 years in prison, then upon his release from prison in 2018 was sent for another year and a half to a "political reeducation camp" as Beijing was increasingly cracking down on the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority. After that, he spent most of his time under house arrest before returning to Kazakhstan this month.
Back in Almaty, Qabylbek had spent the years since his prison release pleading with Kazakh officials for help to secure her husband's release and return. The authorities said formal requests were sent to the Chinese authorities but there was never a positive response.
In 2020, increasingly desperate, Qabylbek began regular protests in front of the Chinese Consulate in Almaty and the embassy in Nur-Sultan, demanding the repatriation of her husband. Qabylbek staged several solo pickets. She also joined protests by other natives of Xinjiang who say their relatives are being kept in Chinese detention centers.
Amid the brutal crackdown on its Muslim population since 2017, China has built hundreds of detention facilities in Xinjiang. They are said to range from reeducation camps to high-security prisons. Rights activists say at least 1 million Muslims, most of them ethnic Uyghurs, have been placed in internment camps, where detainees are subjected to torture, rape, and forced labor, according to survivors. Some women have reported being forcibly sterilized.
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.
China's actions in Xinjiang are thought to represent the largest internment of any religious or ethnic minority in the world since the Nazi targeting of Jewish and Romany populations during World War II. The United States has labeled it a "genocide." Beijing rejects that and other accusations of systematic rights abuses in Xinjiang and says the camps are vocational training centers aimed at preventing religious extremism.
But even those Muslims who are free in Xinjiang have seen their rights and liberties severely curtailed. Many mosques have been razed, and community leaders arrested. The government has embedded more than 1 million civil servants from the country's majority Han Chinese population to live with Muslim families in Xinjiang as part of the assimilation effort.
Silence In Nur-Sultan
Kazakhstan, Central Asia's most ethnically diverse post-Soviet republic, offers citizenship for ethnic Kazakhs who return to their ancestral home.
Zeinolla, his wife, and their two children were among thousands of ethnic Kazakhs who relocated from China to Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They settled in Almaty in 2000. The family was granted Kazakh citizenship in 2003, shortly before Zeinolla's fateful decision to visit Xinjiang.
Zeinolla's eldest child was 14 and his youngest just 5 years old when he last saw them. Both have since finished school, married, and had children of their own. Zeinolla met his daughter-in-law, son-in-law, and grandchildren for the first time at the Almaty airport after his flight this month from Chengdu.
After the emotional reunion, Zeinolla greeted other ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who had come to the airport to support the family. He suggested that their relatives "will be released soon" too but declined to explain.
"I'm happy to have returned to my homeland," he said. "Long live friendship between the two countries." Asked if he had been warned by Chinese officials against speaking to reporters, Zeinolla responded, "No."
Qabylbek said her protests are over now. But other Kazakh families continue to campaign for their own missing loved ones.
Zeinolla's return provides new hope for them, according to Bekzat Maqsutkhan, the head of Real Atazhurt, a volunteer group that collects information on the Xinjiang internment camps and alleged rights abuses through testimony from survivors and other sources.
"We believe that Zeinolla was released because of the pressure on China by the international human rights groups and other institutions," Maqsutkhan said. "It proves that sanctions against China indeed give results," he added.
Last month, the United States, Britain, Canada, and the European Union imposed sanctions on several Chinese officials over the reported rights abuses in Xinjiang. The coordinated move followed Washington's declaration in January that China had committed genocide in its repression of the Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities.
But the Kazakh government has refrained from criticizing China, a key investor in Kazakhstan's economy. The Kazakh authorities have said that they don't interfere in China's treatment of its own citizens, including more than 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang.