ASTANA -- In a rare occurrence, two ethnic-Kazakh men from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang who were convicted of illegally crossing the border a year ago have obtained temporary refugee status in Kazakhstan.
Abdulla Baqbergen, a lawyer for Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly, told RFE/RL over the weekend that the Aqmola region's migration commission granted his clients refugee status for one year.
Alimuly and Musakhanuly told RFE/RL afterwards that they are satisfied with the commission's decision but hope that their status will be extended down the road.
In January, a court in the far eastern town of Zaisan near Chinese border handed one-year prison sentences to the two men for illegally entering the country, but allowed them to stay in Kazakhstan saying that they may face persecution back in Xinjiang.
The court also ruled that each day the two men spent in pretrial detention since October 2019 counts as two prison days, making them eligible for release in less than six months. They were both released in May and since then were trying to obtain refugee status in Kazakhstan.
The 26-year-old Alimuly testified at the hearing that he had been detained in Xinjiang for questioning and faced incarceration at a Chinese "reeducation camp."
Musakhanuly, 31, said he previously had spent five years in such a camp in Xinjiang. In September last year, he said, he was told by Chinese authorities that he would be sent back to one of the camps.
In January, another Kazakh court in the southwestern town of Zharkent decided that another ethnic-Kazakh man from Xinjiang, Tilek Tabarikuly, would not be deported to China after being charged with illegal border-crossing.
Tabarikuly asked the court not to send him back to China and testified that he had to flee even though it meant illegally crossing the border because he feared he would be treated harshly by Chinese authorities and because his parents were waiting for him in Kazakhstan.
The United Nations has estimated that 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.
Those conditions have prompted many ethnic-Kazakhs from Xinjiang in recent years to cross the border illegally in fear of staying in China.
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.