With detainees avoiding deportation to China, is Kazakhstan’s approach to Xinjiang changing?

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In the last days, three ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens have avoided deportation back to China after fleeing Beijing’s repressive campaign in Xinjiang. While these are positive developments, questions remain on the reasons behind the decision of the judges and the pressure the Kazakh authorities receive from their Chinese counterparts.

On January 16, a court in the town Zharkent ruled that Tilek Tabarikuly was to face a six-month in a labour camp for illegally entering Kazakhstan. Five days later, another court, this time in Zaysan, handed one-year prison sentences to Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly for the same reason. More importantly, all three avoided, for the time being, deportation back to China, contrary to the demands of the respective prosecutors .

The decisions by the Kazakh courts were certainly welcomed by the detainees and their supporters, who gathered outside the courthouses and, as was the case in Zaysan, ended up being fined for “disobeying the police”. Avoiding deportation to China was the main objective. However, the cases, each with their own peculiarities, are far from settled as it has not been clarified what will happen with the detainees once their sentences expire. Will they be able to remain in the country or will they have to request asylum somewhere else, as was the case with Sayragul Sautbay and Sweden?

Despite the future status of the detainees remaining unclear, the current developments raise a number of questions regarding the state of Kazakh-Chinese relations and Nur-Sultan’s approach in dealing with Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang. Since the start of China’s campaign of imprisonment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities, Kazakhstan has had to satisfy its large neighbour while also keeping in check domestic protests and movements. The latest judgments of the Kazakh courts seem to be part of the authorities’ overarching strategy.

It would be a mistake to interpret the non-deportation of the detainees as a shift in the government’s approach. While Beijing would much rather have the fugitives back in China, as it reportedly requests the Kazakh authorities to do, their deportation back to Xinjiang, where they would most certainly face torture and other abuses, would cause a PR backlash for Beijing and its campaign to portray the different reports in the Western media as distorted facts. Additionally, it would most likely lead to protests in Kazakhstan which, although not large in size, would hinder the country’s reputation abroad at a time where other civil society groups in the Central Asian nation are voicing their demands.

In a country where the judiciary’s independence is more than questionable, it is unlikely that such decisions, with their foreign policy implications, had not been given the heads up by the Kazakh authorities, who would not dare create a diplomatic row with China. Setting aside formal protests, China may see it as a negligible price to pay for Kazakhstan’s government support in Xinjiang. The fate a handful of individuals is no concern for Beijing if that is what it takes for Nur-Sultan to appease public opinion at home and safe its face abroad.

The cases of Tabarikuly, Alimuly and Musakhanuly are the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of Kazakhstan’s role regarding Xinjiang. What we cannot see is the share of the ice that remains under the water. It is the conversations and negotiations between Nur-Sultan and Beijing that take place behind closed doors what shape the relationship between both countries and define Kazakhstan’s stance regarding the Xinjiang camps. And, with Kazakhstan’s economic dependency on China and the latter’s growing power, there is no indication that the Kazakh position is changing or will change in the future.   

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