Caravanserai
Human Rights

Daily protests rattle Chinese consulate in Almaty over Xinjiang detentions

By Caravanserai and AFP

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Gulnur Kosdaulet (2nd left), 48, protests her husband's detention in China outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty on March 8. [Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP]

ALMATY -- Gulnur Kosdaulet's daily journey to protest over her husband's detention in China begins with a shared taxi that she hails outside her modest farm, where towering mountains give way to Kazakhstan's vast steppe.

An hour and a half later, she arrives at Beijing's consulate in Almaty, where a small picket has persisted for more than a month despite police intimidation.

The demands of the mostly female demonstrators are simple: safe passage home for their relatives -- who are missing, jailed or trapped in China's crackdown on minorities in the Xinjiang region.

Kosdaulet, 48, told AFP that she would have "sat quietly by the hearth and never given politics a thought" had her husband, who is a Chinese citizen, returned from a funeral he attended in Xinjiang in 2017.

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A view of some of the more than 100 new facilities Beijing has recently built to detain Muslims in the Xinjiang region. [Buzzfeed]

She says he was detained simply for having the messaging application WhatsApp installed on his phone and although he has now been freed after stints in jail and "training facilities", his passport has been seized and he may not be able to leave China.

"Kazakhstan and China are friendly. We hold these protests hoping the two governments will find common ground and return our people," she said.

In recent years, majority-Muslim Xinjiang has become known the world over for China's network of "re-education" camps.

Chinese policies there violate "each and every act" prohibited by the United Nations Genocide Convention, said dozens of international analysts in a report for the Newlines Institute think-tank this month.

The United States has accused China of genocide, and the Dutch and Canadian parliaments have both passed votes calling on their governments to follow suit.

Chinese authorities have subjected about one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities to indoctrination, torture and forced labour in the prison-like camps, but the women trapped in those facilities face a risk specific to them: systematic rape and forced sterilisation.

The European Union, United States, Britain and Canada on Monday (March 22) imposed sanctions against Chinese officials over the crackdown on the Uighurs.

"Acting together sends the clearest possible signal that the international community is united in its condemnation of China's human rights violations in Xinjiang and the need for Beijing to end its discriminatory and oppressive practices in the region," Britain's foreign ministry said.

Forced detentions

Kazakhs are concerned over the fate of thousands of their relatives trapped in China.

Every morning that the protest outside the Chinese consulate starts up, so too does a police loudspeaker.

The message repeated on loop warns protesters their actions are illegal and that they could face prosecution.

"They wanted to drown us out," said Baibolat Kunbolat, a 40-year-old man whose brother was jailed in Xinjiang in 2018 on charges of extremism that he says are trumped up.

Kunbolat last month became the second person to be imprisoned over the consulate pickets. He served a 12-day sentence but joined the protests again shortly after.

At one point, after leading a chorus of "freedom", a woman standing next to Kosdaulet holding two photographs broke down in tears.

"I am looking for my husband, Jarkynbek," said the woman, Tursyngul Nurakai. "He disappeared four years ago." Showing one of the photos, she said, "This is my nephew Kenzhebek. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail."

Most of the protesters have filed appeals with the government to engage with Beijing over their relatives -- Chinese citizens who in some cases held Kazakh residency permits.

But the demonstrators stress that they now see the pickets as their only hope.

'I just want to see him'

At the end of 2018, Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said China had allowed 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to enter Kazakhstan as a "kind gesture".

But since the releases, news that other relatives had received jail sentences –- sometimes after stints in high-security facilities that China has likened to vocational training centres -- has become far more common.

Hundreds of compounds bearing the hallmarks of prisons or detention camps were uncovered in the Xinjiang region last year, many of which had been built over the past three years.

The Chinese regime insists they are "vocational training centres", but researchers and former detainees say that "forced labour on a vast scale is almost certainly taking place inside facilities like these".

Kosdaulet's husband, Akbar, a 47-year-old veterinarian and former provincial official, has now been separated from his family for three years.

Kosdaulet told AFP he can now contact her but may not return to Kazakhstan, where the family moved in 2014.

The mother of three travelled to China four times in vain to bring him back, meeting him once through a glass barrier.

She was spared detention herself, she believes, because of her Kazakh passport. On each visit, surveillance grew tighter.

"The last time I went, in 2018, I was trailed by a police car everywhere I went," she said.

When protests at the Chinese consulate began in February, Kosdaulet brought along her mother-in-law, Sarkytkhan Kydyrbay.

But after a few protests the journey became too much for the stocky 74-year-old, who is doubled over with joint pain and "going blind from tears", Kosdaulet said.

As Kosdaulet settled Kydyrbay down on traditional padded floor covers in the family's spartan living room, the older woman grew emotional, embracing the air as she spoke about her son.

"I've lived my life. I just want to see him, kiss him. Then I can die," she said.

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