When Bikamal Kaken’s husband vanished during a 2017 visit to China’s Xinjiang, she had good reason to believe that he would not be returning home to Kazakhstan any time soon.
However, she did not anticipate how dire his fate was or that it would be revealed during a spat online between US and Chinese diplomats.
Rights groups at the time of Adilgazy Muqai’s disappearance were sounding the alarm over a mushrooming network of facilities for the massive incarceration of mostly Muslim minority citizens in the Chinese autonomous region.
Kaken heard that her husband had fallen victim to the system. Three agonizing years later, she learned that he had met an even worse judgement: a nine-year prison sentence for extremist crimes.
“I am so worried. The Chinese [authorities] will destroy him in jail,” said Kaken, a China-born ethnic Kazakh who is now a Kazakh citizen, pressing her two young daughters tightly to her body.
Beijing has robustly defended its policies in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million people — mostly Muslims from Turkic-speaking groups like Uighurs and Kazakhs — have been rounded up on vague extremism and separatism pretexts, rights groups say.
China claims that the sprawling network of detention centers are vocational training facilities used to counter extremism where attendance is voluntary.
Yet in neighboring Kazakhstan, 44-year-old Kaken is just one of a growing number of relatives to discover that their missing family members are not in the centers as previously thought, but serving hard jail time instead.
Kaken and her husband, a retired oil worker, moved to Kazakhstan when she was pregnant with her youngest child, now three, after hearing reports that Xinjiang authorities were forcing women from minority groups to have abortions.
But 47-year-old Muqai, who had right of residency in Kazakhstan, but was not a citizen, was lured back to his native region in May 2017 by his former employers.
They said that the company pension that his family subsisted on could be canceled if he failed to attend a meeting.
When news of Muqai’s sentence finally emerged three years after his disappearance, it came from an unlikely source — a senior diplomat of the country that had jailed him.
Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiao (張霄) told a state-owned news outlet that Muqai was sentenced to nine years on extremism charges and in the same interview dismissed Kaken’s account of her family’s ordeal, which was reprinted by the US embassy in Kazakhstan.
Her story was “full of lies, without a single sentence of truth,” Zhang told China-based Global Times.
Kaken, who sews clothes and accepts charity to pay rent for a studio apartment in the provincial town of Uzynagash, around 60km from Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, insists that her husband is innocent.
“His only crime is his Kazakh identity,” she said.
Despite close relations between Kazakhstan and China, the Central Asian country has emerged as a hub for activism against Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, where thousands of Kazakhs have family ties.
That was largely due to the Atajurt rights group, which posted video testimonies recorded by hundreds of Kazakhs whose relatives had gone missing in China.
The group came under pressure from Kazakh authorities, who have refused it registration, with one of its leaders only beating jail on extremism charges after foreign media coverage and public outcry.
China last year began boasting that most citizens had “graduated” from the centers, after Kazakhstan said that Beijing had allowed hundreds of ethnic Kazakhs with Kazakhstan residence permits to leave China and reunite with families across the border.
Many in Kazakhstan believe that the video appeals and the media attention they attracted played a role in pressuring Beijing.
Yet Mehmet Kasikci, a doctoral student at Arizona State University who volunteered with the group, said that other Kazakhs began hearing that their relatives had received jail sentences not long after this wave of releases.
“Yes, hundreds of thousands have probably been released from the camps, but few are truly free, and more importantly hundreds of thousands have also been sent to official prisons,” Kasikci said.
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