In May 2018, Qaisha Aqan – an ethnic Kazakh businesswoman from Xinjiang – fled the region and escaped to Kazakhstan, where she would remain illegally until finally going public in the September of this year. At the time of writing, she stands trial for illegally crossing the border and is simultaneously applying for asylum in Kazakhstan, a country that is yet to formally grant this status to any refugees from Xinjiang. What follows is her testimony from the first court session, held on November 12, 2019, in which she describes the circumstances that forced her to flee.
I, Qaisha Aqan, was born on June 1, 1976 in Wusu City in China. My residential address is in Gongliu County, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. The reason why I crossed the border illegally is that I had previously bought tickets in Qorgas City for the bus to Kazakhstan three times, but each time would be among the 5-6 or 7-8 people who were not allowed to cross…
[At this point, her lawyer asks her to start over, indicating that she has jumped to the end.]
In 1984, we moved from Wusu to Gongliu (County) because of my father’s job. There, I went to the No. 3 elementary school and the No. 1 middle school. Afterwards, I completed a 4-year university degree in international trade at the Ili Economics and Finance Institute. I also completed a 2-year program in the same major at the Xinjiang Economics Institute. After finishing my studies in 1998, I went back to Gongliu County and would be unemployed for a year, before starting to work as an accountant at a medical company in 1999. In 2000, the government gave me a job at the Organization Department [likely, 组织部].
I got my passport in 2007. My son was 3 years old then. In August 2007, I first came to Kazakhstan – around August 3 or 4, if I remember correctly. I spent about 15 days in Almaty and then went back to China, after which I started working at the Qorgas border, doing trade and exporting daily commodities to Kazakhstan. In 2013, I divorced [my then-husband] Nurshat Sadyruly. I would continue to work in trade from 2007 to 2018, and would work as an accountant for a number of companies. My colleagues and I co-founded the “Kokzhal” company in 2018.
In November , the Gongliu county police summoned me to the police station. When I got there, they asked me why I had obtained a passport, who issued it to me, how much I had paid, whom I’d meet when I visited Kazakhstan, the content of our conversations while I was there, whether or not I used YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social network sites, what my faith was, if I was religious, if I prayed, if I fasted… They also asked me to give them the copies of my bank cards, and asked how many different phone numbers I was using. The interrogation lasted about 3-4 hours.
On December 29, 2017, I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to Almaty. Around five people would be stopped at the border that time, myself included. The other passengers waited three hours for us, but in the end the border staff gave me back my passport and told me that I had to go back to my hometown to get a stamped piece of paper saying that I could cross the border, with my permission to exit also being reflected in the computer system.
So I went to the police station and explained to them that I was visiting Kazakhstan for business. They asked me to sign a paper saying that I would abide by Chinese law, that I would not go to mosques, that I would not say anything about the current policies. It was a letter of assurance [保证书]. They then gave me permission to go, and I’d come to Kazakhstan in January 2018, stay for six days, and go back.
When granting me that permission, they had told me to let them know once I was back. It was on January 6 that I returned to China. On the 7th, I did some things for the company and only went to the police station on the 9th – to meet an officer named Lü – because I had only gotten back to my hometown late at night on the 8th. I reported to him about my visit to Kazakhstan. It took about an hour.
On February 11, 2018, I went to the bus station in Qorgas and again bought a ticket for Kazakhstan. This time, the border staff held me for more than two hours and told me that I should go back to the police station where I got registered and again get permission. However, the police would tell me that they could no longer grant permission. My ticket was wasted.
On March 20, 2018, I went to the bus station again and bought a ticket for 4000 tenge. That time too I wasn’t allowed to cross the border.
I had to go back to Gongliu at the beginning of April because I got sick, and you were only allowed to receive treatment at a hospital in the same locality as your household registration. I spent about a month in the hospital and was transferred to a second one because my waist hurt and I couldn’t walk.
On May 4, 2018, my mother told me that the police were calling me about my household registration. It was because we used to live in a house in the county-seat town center, next to the No. 2 middle school, which was later transformed into a political camp, forcing us to move – buying a new apartment on the first floor of a building on the edge of town. The old house was in the No. 1 district, while the new one was in the No. 2.
When I had previously gone to change my household registration, they told me to change it to Qorgas City, as that’s where I was living. But Qorgas doesn’t grant household registration unless you’ve lived there for a long time. So I had explained the situation and registered with my mother’s address.
It was again Lü who questioned me this time. Taking some document from the shelf, he started checking my phone while looking at the paper. He typed some codes into the computer and checked my phone, plugging it into the computer. He didn’t find any illegal content, anything related to religion, or any sermons. The first topic [of the interrogation] was the registration, the second was the check of my phone, and then the third he started by saying that I had joined a certain group in the Changji region [Qaisha insists that this is Changji City not far from Urumqi, although the more logical variant would be Shonzhy in Kazakhstan, not far from Zharkent and the XJ-KZ border, as some Chinese officials have reportedly stated that these regions harbor “terrorists”].
I asked him to tell me which group it was and to show me what exactly was illegal. He couldn’t show or prove it, and instead just said that I had recently been there, maybe sometime in the last month or two. I then remembered that on February 12-13, 2018 I had gone from Qorgas to Urumqi by bus, going to the Kazakh consulate to get a visa. That might have been around February 15. The visa application only took me two hours, and at 4:30 pm on the same day I took the bus to Gongliu to see my mother. I had taken a video of an overpass as we were driving past it, and so would tell Lü that I could prove that I hadn’t gone to Changji that day – I had gone to Urumqi. I asked them to return my phone. There was also a policeman named Juret there, and he was also looking at my phone while I tried to find the video to prove that I hadn’t gone to Changji.
Then they stopped talking about this and moved on to the fourth topic – the “toqal” [lit. “(younger) second wife”]. After an hour, Lü asked Juret to get a tiger chair. Even though it was hot that day, I was wearing thick clothes since I was sick. As they brought in the chair, they changed their attitude and ordered me to get in. I didn’t fit into the chair and was ordered to take my coat off. I took off my coat, after which I was handcuffed and shackled. They told me that they wouldn’t lock me up in a camp if I confessed nicely, but that the outcome would be different if I were stubborn.
I didn’t get what Lü meant when he first said the word “toqal”, and I asked him about it. So he folded a page of the document that he had taken off the shelf and showed me the word without showing the rest of the document. It was the word “toqal” written in Cyrillic [тоқал]. Then he explained it in Chinese. He said that Kazakhs joined that group and advocated for getting a second wife, so as to increase the number of children they had. The members were paid, he said. I told him that it would be great if someone gave money for joining the group, and that everyone should join such groups then. I also asked if they found me sending anything illegal or something that promoted religion in that group, in which case they should just show it to me and in which case I was ready to be punished according to the law. Lü couldn’t, saying instead that I would be shown mercy if I confessed.
Then he asked me if I knew “Zharqyn”. I knew several people with that name and asked which one he meant. Again, he folded the paper and showed me the name “Zharqyn 7” [Serikzhan Bilash], saying: you Kazakhs join this group and try to unite in your country. He asked if I knew about such a group and about the lectures given in the group. I told him that I was just a trader, and said that I was not interested in politics. All I wanted was to do business and earn money.
Then we moved on to the sixth topic: “How many times have you visited Kazakhstan? How many times have you had a passport issued? How many stamps do you have in your passport? Who issued you the passport? How much did you pay?” We can only have our passports issued in the region where our household registration is, and I got mine at the external affairs department of the public security bureau in Gongliu County. I paid 255 RMB. 30 RMB for the photos. I got the visa at the Kazakhstan consulate. He also asked if I had ever gotten a visa in Almaty. I had, in 2009. It was difficult to get a visa in Urumqi back then, so I had it done in Kazakhstan and got a multiple-entry visa for a year. It was legal and I paid the required fee. I told him this. Then he asked about whom I’d meet, what I talked about, if I prayed or fasted, and what we said about China whenever I was in Kazakhstan. I explained to him that I just did trade.
He then started the seventh and eighth topics, saying that I had visited Kazakhstan many times during the past ten years. He asked if I knew that Kazakhstan was one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I answered by saying that Kazakhstan and China were good neighbors and that this was all I knew. He said that I had visited this dangerous country many times and that it was very unlikely that I had never used any of the social media, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, or YouTube.
The written record of the interrogation was seven and a half pages. At the end of it, they indicated my crime as “visiting Kazakhstan too many times”, “living in a border area for a long period of time”, and “being in a close relationship with foreigners”. I was ordered to leave my fingerprints on each page. Then he said that I would need to come the following day to have my voice recorded, have my irises scanned, and to leave my fingerprints. He also asked me to hand in my passport to them by noon of the following day. However, he also mentioned that I wouldn’t be allowed to leave Gongliu County, and so would need to ask someone to bring my passport over from Qorgas. But nobody could do that as my colleagues were all unavailable – some of them were in Russia and Kazakhstan, and another one was in the hospital. He told me to keep silent about my interrogation and being put into the chair.
The interrogation ended at 6:30 pm and I left to go home. As we were leaving the police station, Lü told his colleague that he was taking the envelope with the seven-and-a-half-page interrogation record to the public security bureau. I called a taxi at midnight – at 4 in the morning it arrived. By the way, they also took my ID card when I was leaving the police station.
At 8:30 am, I arrived in Qorgas City and entered my apartment. While I was washing my face, a Kazakh man – Toleu or Tilek, I think – phoned me and told me that he was with the internet police. He said that the materials submitted the day before were insufficient, and told me that I needed to go to the main police division in Gongliu County. I told him that I was in Qorgas to get my passport. However, when I actually went to the Qorgas police to get the passport, they said that they were in a meeting, and told me to come at 5:30 pm. I ended up getting my passport in the evening.
Up until the moment that I got it, the police had already phoned me at least 20-30 times, asking when I was coming back. I told the police that I had gotten my passport only in the evening, and so would bring it the next day.
That night, I phoned my friend to find out what was going on. I couldn’t ask them directly and explained the situation in less overt terms. Then I asked another friend – the third one I asked. All of them told me the same thing, and I became certain that I had been put on a list. What they told me was: you have a health problem, but the “Chinese medicine” won’t help you now – only “Kazakh medicine” can.
In the district where I lived, you’d have several male guards patrol and visit every household to ask all sorts of stupid questions: “Is the apartment yours? How long have you been living here?” And so on. So I’d try to switch the light off in the evenings. I was afraid of being put into a camp. I heard about them. My neighbor was put in one – she was 23-24 years old and had to be taken out to have an abortion done, before being taken back in.
I was scared, so I decided to flee to Kazakhstan on May 5, 2018. I thought I would be able to get Kazakhstan citizenship. I went to the boundary cooperation center and asked for help. I was standing next to the Samuryq [mall] on the Kazakh side. The [Xinjiang] police kept calling me the whole time. I told them I was ill and was waiting for the result in a hospital.
[Qaisha’s account of how she then snuck past Kazakh border control has not been recorded – most likely because observers are generally not allowed to record and distribute this portion of the trial.]
Transcribed and translated from the original Kazakh by Kaster Bakyt. Edited and annotated by Gene A. Bunin.