Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang was one of the first victims to speak publicly about China's "repressive campaign against Muslims. (file photo)
FILE - Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, was one of the first victims to speak publicly about China's "repressive campaign against Muslims." (RFE/RL's Kazakh service)

Sairagul Sauytbay, who said she faced torture in the Chinese detention camps in the Xinjiang region, never thought her story of survival would gain international attention one day.

The 43-year-old Kazakh woman said she was stunned last Wednesday when U.S. first lady Melania Trump handed Sauytbay the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award for providing firsthand details of the human rights situation in the camps.

“I am also thankful to this country and the Trump administration for upholding values of democracy and human rights, and for sending a strong signal to China to stop its abuses against both Kazakhs and Uighurs who are being oppressed,” Sauytbay told VOA.

She said she hoped her story of survival could inspire other Xinjiang residents to speak up about the harsh conditions they are facing. 

“I strongly hope that this award would help raise awareness to the human tragedy in East Turkestan, and other countries around the world also step out and help the plight of the voiceless Uighurs and Kazakhs oppressed in China,” she said. 

East Turkestan is a term often used by the Muslim community in China to refer to Xinjiang.

Stepped-up campaign

Sauytbay worked as a medical doctor when the Chinese authorities stepped up their campaign in Xinjiang in early 2017.

Before her detention by the authorities, she said, she was forced to work in a camp as an instructor, teaching other detainees Mandarin and Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

“Chinese authorities confiscated my passport long before I was first detained in 2017,” Sauytbay told VOA, adding that she was prevented from moving to Kazakhstan with her husband and two children in early 2016.

She was allegedly tortured and imprisoned in the detention camps for about six months before her release in March 2018.

She crossed the border illegally into Kazakhstan in April 2018 because of fears that she could be detained again.

“The only dream I had at the time was to unite with my family in Kazakhstan. So I decided to take the risk to cross the border without legal documents,” she told VOA.

While in Kazakhstan, Sauytbay was jailed for illegal border-crossing and denied asylum. Sauytbay and her family later moved to Sweden, where she gained international attention as a female activist spreading awareness of the alleged Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang.

U.S. first lady Melania Trump, Sairagul Sauytbay and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are pictured at the State Department, March 4, 2020. (State Department photo)

'Continues to inspire'

During the award ceremony Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sauytbay “bravely” gave details of the detention camps and “continues to inspire other former detainees and family members to come forward to tell their stories to the world.”

Xinjiang is a majority Uighur autonomous region but also hosts about 1.5 million Kazakhs. Many Chinese Kazakhs who flee the region slip into neighboring Kazakhstan, which shares a 1,770-kilometer border with China

Those who arrive in Kazakhstan say that Kazakhs, along with Uighurs, are facing a severe government crackdown by the Chinese government. More than a million people are believed to be detained in the camps.

China, however, has denied such allegations, claiming the facilities are “vocational training centers” that help the local community obtain “new skills.”

Chinese officials have said the measures taken in Xinjiang are part of China’s “war on three evils”: extremism, terrorism and separatism.

During his visit to Kazakhstan in February, Pompeo urged Kazakh officials to offer “safe refuge and asylum” to those fleeing China. The U.S. official met with five Chinese Kazakhs who said their family members were either held in camps or sentenced to long prison terms, and some were forced to work in factories as cheap labor. 

One of the five Kazakhs, Aqiqat Qaliolla, became a naturalized Kazakhstan citizen in 2018, four years after his move from China. He told VOA that he had yet to learn the whereabouts of his parents and two brothers who were put in camps in early 2018.

“I first lost contact with my family in March 2018. Later, friends told me that my father, mother and two brothers were taken to concentration camps. I also heard that China even sentenced my father to 20 years in prison,” he said. 

Immigrating to Kazakhstan 

For years, the government in Kazakhstan has said it welcomes the influx of Kazakhs living around the world, including from Xinjiang. By 2016, nearly 1 million Kazakhs had acquired Kazakhstan citizenship, with almost 15% of them believed to have come from China. 

The Chinese Kazakhs, aided by shared language and culture, were quick to assimilate in Kazakhstan but still maintained close ties with their relatives in Xinjiang. However, those ties were cut in 2017 during the Chinese crackdown in the region.

Aidin Aghimolda, a Kazakh from Xinjiang, went to Kazakhstan in 2003 as a student and later became a Kazakhstan citizen. He told VOA he had recently learned that his three siblings and a sister-in-law in Xinjiang were taken to detention camps in August 2018.

“Two of my brothers, a sister and a sister-in-law were all taken to camps on the same day in August of 2018 for no apparent reason,” Aghimolda told VOA, adding that all of them were given long prison sentences, ranging from 11 to 14 years.

Another victim, Muhamet Qizilbek, immigrated with his family to Kazakhstan in 2014 and obtained his citizenship in 2018. He said his wife went to visit her parents with a Chinese passport and Kazakh residence card in 2017, and she has not been able to come back since then. 

“When my wife arrived in China, they took away her passport and Kazakh residence card, and she had been first put in house arrest for 90 days before being taken to an internment camp. She was in the camp for a year and then was moved to a factory with an 800-yuan monthly salary,” he told VOA.

Kazakhstan’s dilemma 

Nargis Kassenova, a senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, told VOA that the Xinjiang issue has put Kazakhstan's government in a difficult position because of the country’s close economic ties to China.

“It tries not to make strong moves that would upset too much the domestic public opinion and China, keeping both moderately upset," Kassenova told VOA. 

She said Kazakh officials are trying to maintain the “delicate balance” by “downplaying the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, at the same time increasing the number of visas issued to ethnic Kazakhs from China.”