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Relatives 'Held Hostage': Ethnic Kazakhs Fear Chinese Persecution After Settling Abroad

People demonstrate outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, demanding the release of relatives in China's Xinjiang region, in February 2021.
People demonstrate outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, demanding the release of relatives in China's Xinjiang region, in February 2021.

A naturalized Kazakh citizen, Raqyzhan Zeinolla made what he thought would be a brief visit in 2004 to see relatives in his native Xinjiang region in northwestern China.

But the short trip turned into a 17-year nightmare for him and his family.

Soon after arriving in Xinjiang, Zeinolla was thrown into prison, where he languished for 13 years before being put in a reeducation camp and, later, under house arrest on dubious espionage charges.

Zeinolla was finally allowed to return to Kazakhstan in April 2021.

Nearly two years later, Zeinolla declines to speak publicly about what happened to him in China or about the situation in Xinjiang, where Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities suffer grave human rights abuses at the hands of Chinese authorities, who deny the charges.

Also silent is Zeinolla's wife, Farida Qabylbek, who had for many years led a relentless campaign to secure her husband's release, with regular protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Astana and its consulate in Almaty.

"Zeinolla will not give an interview, he doesn't want to. He also tells me not to speak to the media," Qabylbek told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

Many other ethnic Kazakhs from China are similarly reluctant to talk to the media despite having been settled in Kazakhstan for many years. They fear Chinese authorities will retaliate against their relatives in Xinjiang, activists say.

Raqyzhan Zeinolla with Farida Qabylbek in April 2021
Raqyzhan Zeinolla with Farida Qabylbek in April 2021

According to activist Erbol Dauletbekuly, the relatives of those who leave China literally become hostages, giving the government enormous leverage in forcing the emigres into silence. "For each person who decides to go abroad, at least three relatives must register as 'hostages.' Authorities warn [him/her] that if they give interviews or criticize China after going abroad, the relatives will be held accountable," Dauletbekuly told RFE/RL.

"Those who want to go abroad cannot easily find relatives who agree to register as so-called hostages. Nobody wants to do it," Dauletbekuly added.

Brother Sent To Jail

RFE/RL cannot independently confirm Dauletbekuly's claims, but one Chinese-Kazakh woman in Almaty said her brother was thrown into prison in Xinjiang after she criticized the Chinese government.

Rahima Sembaiqyzy moved to Kazakhstan many years ago with her husband and their four children. In 2017, Sembaiqyzy traveled to her native Xinjiang to visit her parents and siblings.

Pregnant with her fifth child at the time, Sembaiqyzy was arrested soon after arriving in Xinjiang. On the day of her arrest, she was forced to have an abortion, she says.

The naturalized Kazakh citizen spent two months in prison, followed by 10 months in a reeducation camp, and another two months under house arrest. Sembaiqyzy's father was also sent to the reeducation camp with her.

"To get permission to return to Kazakhstan, I registered my mother and father as hostages. I signed a document pledging that when I return to Kazakhstan I won't talk about [what happened to me in Xinjiang]," Sembaiqyzy told RFE/RL.

Sembaiqyzy said she kept silent about her ordeal in Xinjiang "for quite some time."

"But I couldn't take it anymore, and I told the media about everything I'd been through in Xinjiang," Sembaiqyzy said.

Security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in Xinjiang.
Security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in Xinjiang.

Sembaiqyzy's family in Xinjiang paid the price for her speaking out. Her brother -- a policeman in Xinjiang -- was sent to prison. Sembaiqyzy also lost contact with her parents. She believes they have been ordered not to call or write her or respond to her phone calls.

The prospect of a similar situation prevents many other Xinjiang-born Kazakhs who have settled abroad from speaking about the Chinese government's brutal crackdown on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of them have been interned in camps.

"I cannot say anything, please leave me alone," Ghalym, a Xinjiang-born ethnic Kazakh, told RFE/RL when contacted about his time at a Chinese prison and reeducation camp several years ago. Like many others, Ghalym was detained while visiting his relatives in China.

He was eventually released and returned to Kazakhstan in 2018, but he has remained silent about what happened to him in China.

Even some of those who once actively campaigned for the release of their imprisoned relatives in Xinjiang have suddenly halted their protests and avoid speaking to the media.

Astana Also Silent

Chinese authorities use various methods to control ethnic minorities even after they leave China and become citizens of other countries, says Bekzat Maqsutkhan, the head of the unregistered Naghyz Atazhurt group, which defends the rights of Xinjiang natives in Kazakhstan.

"Before allowing someone to leave China, officials warn them that 'we have agents who will find you anywhere...if you criticize China,' or even threaten that they can still return them to China," Maqsutkhan told RFE/RL.

The United States and several other Western countries have accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang, where human rights groups says more than 1 million Muslims, most of them ethnic Uyghurs, have been placed in prison camps in recent years.

In 2022, the UN human rights office accused Beijing of serious human rights violations that may constitute "crimes against humanity" in its mass detentions in Xinjiang.

Former prisoners have given horrific accounts of the torture, rape, and psychological pressure they faced in the camps. Many women said they were forcibly sterilized while in custody.

Beijing denies the charges and says the camps are vocational facilities designed to combat extremism and terrorism.

More than 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang, making them the province's second-largest Turkic-speaking group after Uyghurs.

Thousands of ethnic Kazakhs have resettled in Kazakhstan since the Central Asian government launched a special repatriation program in 1991 to encourage Kazakhs abroad to return to their ancestral country.

Despite the reports of rights abuses in Xinjiang, the Kazakh government has refrained from criticizing China, a major investor in the Kazakh economy.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Nurtai Lakhanuly of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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