Sairagul Sauytbai, an ethnic Kazakh who fled China last year after working in a so-called vocational training centre for ethnic minorities, wanted to tell others about the beatings and torture she said she had seen there.
But in neighbouring Kazakhstan, where she arrived to seek refuge, she was accused of crossing the border illegally, stripped naked, and told by state security agents to keep quiet about Beijing’s “de-radicalisation drive”, in which it has put hundreds of thousands of people in camps akin to prisons, Sauytbai and her lawyer told Reuters.
The plight of Sairagul and others who have fled China‘s western Xinjiang region because of the camps highlights the difficulties they face in neighbouring countries that have close ties with Beijing, and explains why many remain silent about their experiences.
Human rights groups say China has detained up to a million people in camps set up throughout Xinjiang, a region where Muslim Uighurs are the biggest ethnic group and where ethnic tensions have in the past resulted in violence.
Former camp inmates have described them as prisons and told Reuters that people could be held there for months, being indoctrinated in Communist ideology. Beijing says the camps are “vocational training centres” designed to help prevent terrorism and extremism.
WATCH: China shows off ‘education centres’ despite global concern
Stripped and threatened
Sauytbai, 42, worked as a kindergarten principal in Xinjiang’s Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture when she was suddenly forcibly recruited in November 2017 to teach Chinese language and culture, as well as Communist Party doctrine, to inmates of a camp.
Sauytbai’s husband and two children had already moved to Kazakhstan, but her passport had been confiscated, preventing her from joining them. When she got to the camp, she was appalled by the treatment of inmates, and saw beatings and torture.
“I know many of them,” she said. “There are people ranging from ordinary shepherds to writers and social activists. There are people who have committed no crime.”
Four months later, the authorities sent Sauytbai back home, where she was sacked from her kindergarten job. Fearing that she would soon be sent to a camp as an inmate, she sneaked into Kazakhstan illegally through Khorgos, a duty-free trade zone on the border.
Sauytbai was soon detained in Kazakhstan and tried, but a court ruled against sending her back to China and gave her a suspended sentence.
She then applied for asylum, but a state commission turned her down, saying it had not found sufficient evidence of persecution. Last month, she and her family left for Sweden, where she has applied for residence.
Speaking to Reuters in the Swedish town of Trelleborg, Sauytbai said Kazakh security agents had warned her against criticising China.
“After I came to Kazakhstan, having witnessed it all, I wanted to tell the whole world about it,” she said. “But the National Security Committee and my (former) lawyer Abzal Kuspan kept my mouth shut.”
Kuspan confirmed he had advised her not to talk about the Chinese camps to avoid jeopardising her court case and her asylum request: “Our first concern was making sure she was not handed over to China.”
He said he was aware that Sauytbai had come under pressure, especially immediately after her detention in Kazakhstan.
“She was kept in some building, she was stripped naked,” he said.
Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee did not reply to questions from Reuters about Sauytbai’s allegations. China‘s foreign ministry said that “the facts of Sairagul Sauytbai’s credit fraud and illegal border crossing crimes are clear and they must be punished severely”.
Sauytbai’s family have told Kazakh media that they had an outstanding bank loan in China which they had planned to repay by selling their house – until she had to flee.
The Chinese ministry also said that the “training centres strictly comply with the constitutional and legal principles and requirements for respecting and protecting human rights, and fully ensure that trainees’ human dignity is not infringed upon”. The Xinjiang government did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Sent back to China
Xinjiang ethnic Kyrgyz market trader Aishan Memetrasul, 55, says he thought he had reached safety when he managed to get out of a camp by asking to see a badly ill relative.
He crossed the border of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, another central Asian republic, and applied to be naturalised on the basis of his Kyrgyz ethnicity – which local law allows.
But the Kyrgyz authorities told him that he would need a document that he could only obtain in China. They sent him back, and he ended up back in the camp for another six weeks.
He got out of the camp a second time on the pretext of going to Kyrgyzstan to fetch his elderly mother. Now in Kyrgyzstan, he has sought the government’s help to obtain the release of his numerous relatives who still live in Xinjiang.
“The (Kyrgyz) government has not given us any answer,” Memetrasul told Reuters in an interview in Bishkek.
Asked for comment on the camps, a Kyrgyz foreign ministry spokesman said it was keeping an eye on the matter and would use diplomatic channels to discuss any issues with Beijing.