A Kazakh court on Wednesday freed a Chinese citizen who gave testimony on a secretive network of Chinese “re-education camps” during her explosive immigration trial.
Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national, was detained after she entered Kazakhstan illegally in April to join her husband and two children.
The 41-year-old whistleblower told the court how she had been forced to work in a camp system in China’s Xinjiang region where hundreds of thousands of people are allegedly held.
The case has tested Kazakhstan’s ties with Beijing, which insisted Sauytbay be deported to China — the normal outcome under Kazakh law in such cases.
But the court granted her a six-month suspended sentence and spared her deportation after she insisted she would be killed if forced to return to the country.
“If I go back to China all that waits for me is an execution,” she said in court.
Chinese authorities have denied the existence of such facilities despite mounting evidence from both official documents and testimonies from those who have escaped them.
China’s predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups are believed to make up the majority of the camps’ populations.
Beijing has stepped up a crackdown in Xinjiang against what it calls separatist elements.
Asked under oath about a so-called “camp” where she worked as an employee of the Chinese state, court spectators gasped when Sauytbay replied it held some 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs.
The former Chinese state employee — who said earlier in the trial that she was granted access to classified documents that shed light on the true nature of the camps — will be allowed to settle with her family in Kazakhstan.
She was separated from them for two years after Chinese authorities confiscated her passport, leading her to enter Kazakhstan with forged documents.
Representatives of China’s foreign service in Kazakhstan attended hearings on the case but refused to answer questions from journalists.
China has enlisted oil-rich Kazakhstan as a partner in its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at improving overland trade routes between Europe and Asia.
The case was viewed as a test of Beijing’s strongest relationship in the region.
Human Rights Watch on Monday urged the Kazakh court to “reject Chinese pressure” to return Sauytbay, whom the watchdog described as a refugee.