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Continuous Fight for Her Relative


Author: Zarina Mukanova

17 June 2024

 

This blog post is dedicated to the story of one of the protesters in front of the Chinese consulate in Almaty: Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva. Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva joined her mother's protests in 2021 to advocate for her relative, Asqar Azatbek[1], who was detained in December 2017 in Khorgos.


While Gaukhar was born in Kazakhstan, her father and grandfather migrated to Kazakhstan from Xinjiang in 1956, a few years before the international borders between China and the USSR were closed, halting the migration of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and Dungans among others. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opening of the borders between independent Kazakhstan and the People’s Republic of China, her father and grandfather reestablished connections with their relatives in Xinjiang.


In 2016, Asqar Azatbek, Gaukhar's relative, came to Kazakhstan and applied for citizenship. By 2017, he officially became a Kazakhstani citizen, aiming to reunite with his wife and two children who remained in Khulja, China, by bringing them to Kazakhstan. On December 7, 2017, he went to Khorgos to engage in small trade and earn some money before his family's arrival. He went there with a friend, planning to return around 4 pm. That afternoon Gaukhar received a phone call from his friend, who was agitated and informed her that Asqar was detained. He told her that they were at the Kazakhstani side of Khorgos when Chinese police, dressed in civilian clothes, approached to check their documents. When Asqar showed his Kazakh passport, they threw him face down, grabbed him by his hair, and twisted his hands behind his back. The police took Asqar away by car while his friend remained pinned on the ground.



Asqar Azatbek become Kazakhstani citizen on 6 October 2017. Two months later, he has been detained at the Khorgos free trading zone between Kazakhstan and China (source: archive of G. Kurmanaliyeva).

 


Gaukhar was shocked upon hearing this news and couldn’t wrap her head around why her relative was taken by the Chinese police. She sought information about Asqar’s whereabouts from his friend. He said that they took him to the ICBC[2] police point. She tried to reach his phone for several hours unsuccessfully. His phone was unreachable until midnight of that day.


At 8 pm, they decided to go to the Kazakh police in Zharkent and report the detention of the Kazakhstani citizen, but the police were indifferent. Policemen assumed that he might have gotten tired and went to the hotel within ICBC. They assumed he might come back tomorrow. Gaukhar insisted that the person accompanying Asqar witnessed the forced detainment, yet the police accepted the testimony only the next day. There was no news from Asqar the following days, and they started thinking that he was taken to China from Khorgos. She continued her attempts to reach Asqar through the local Kazakh police, and after one and a half months she got an answer that Asqar Azatbek was detained and kept there[3] for interrogation on double citizenship.


Gaukhar’s Fight for Information


Despite Gaukhar's testimony, the Kazakhstani Prosecutor's Office refused to take action due to insufficient evidence of a crime. Undeterred, Gaukhar continued her quest for justice. She sought assistance from the Ministry of External Affairs and State Security Office, but information about Asqar remained scarce. In 2018, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of espionage.


In September 2021, Gaughar joined other women in protests outside of the Chinese consulate in Almaty, demanding information about their detained family members in Xinjiang. When she was able to reach the External Affairs ministry, they regretted to inform her that in response to their inquiries about Asqar Azatbek, China replied that he is not a citizen of Kazakhstan but of China. The news startled her since she knew that he received official citizenship of Kazakhstan with a stamp and a date of issue. The ministry couldn’t do anything about that.



Asqar Azatbek's annulated Chinese passport as a proof that he is no longer Chinese citizen (source: archive of G. Kurmanaliyeva).



Together with other protesters, they went to Astana for a demonstration in front of the general consulate of the People’s Republic of China. In November of that year, after the consulate protest, when they were taken to the district department of internal affairs for three hours, Gaughar received a call. After her persistence, she managed to obtain the confirmation of Asqar Azatbek’s Kazakhstani citizenship! The call also included a plea to not gather in front of the Chinese consulate anymore. Despite official acknowledgment of Asqar's Kazakhstani citizenship, she continued to join the protests; this time to demand from the Kazakhstani embassy his relocation to Kazakhstan.


At last, in 2022, a member of the Kazakhstani embassy in China went to Gansu prison to visit Asqar Azatbek. He informed Gaukhar that her relative is well there. But Gaukhar didn’t want a mere report on his well-being, she requested a handwritten letter from him as a confirmation of his identity and his relocation to Kazakhstan. Due to her rigorous protests, on 18 July 2022, she received a handwritten letter from her relative Asqar Azatbek from Gansu prison. In that letter, he requested his transfer to a Kazakhstani prison.


Ever since that day, she bothers the Ministry of Foreign Affairs every day with Asqar’s relocation request, but the Chinese authorities remained unresponsive.



Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva on th 463's day of the protest speaking to Kazakh police in front of the Chinese consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan (source: archive of G. Kurmanaliyeva).



Family Visits Restricted


In 2022, Asqar Azatbek’s wife and his younger brother were granted permission to visit him in Gansu prison. However, they were not allowed to meet with Asqar after the long-lasting travel, allegedly due to some bureaucratic issues. The second time they tried to see him, Asqar’s wife was requested an official marriage confirmation from the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan and was denied to see him again. They were able to see him for mere minutes on the third attempt.  He looked very unwell, thin, and sick.


Results of the Protests


Though Asqar Azatbek's relocation to Kazakhstan has yet to be realised, Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva believes that the protests and advocacy efforts have made significant strides. Her relentless pursuit of justice allowed to yield a recognition of his Kazakhstani citizenship and to get a handwritten letter from him requesting to transfer him to Kazakhstan. Since his disappearance, Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva gave numerous testimonies and interviews to local and international media. She keeps going to the protests and demands Asqar’s transfer from Chinese prison to Kazakhstan.



Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva with other protesters in front of the Chinese consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The poster states that it has been 3 years since they started demanding for freedom for their relatives (source: archive of G. Kurmanaliyeva).

 




[2] ICBC-International Centre for Border Cooperation Khorgos

[3] Gaukhar has little information about where exactly Asqar was during the first time of his detention.


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