Kazakhstan denies asylum to China 're-education camp' whistleblower

Sayragul Sauytbay has been spared the deportation order usually imposed on people who enter Kazakhstan illegally from China (AFP Photo/Ruslan PRYANIKOV)

Moscow (AFP) - Ex-Soviet Kazakhstan has refused asylum to an escaped Chinese national whose court testimony helped expose a secretive network of re-education camps in China's restive Xinjiang region, her lawyer said Friday.

Sayragul Sauytbay, 41, was denied political asylum by a migration committee in the Central Asian country.

The decision came despite an earlier court ruling refusing to allow her extradition to China for having illegally crossed the border between the two countries.

Lawyer Abzal Kuspanov told AFP the decision had been "expected" given the "very strong influence of China" on its close ally Kazakhstan.

He said they would appeal the decision.

"She will not be deported, we will not allow it," Kuspanov said.

The committee's decision could be appealed through a local court. They would also seek the help of the UN.

The committee's decision could be appealed through a local court and they would also seek the help of the UN, he added.

Roughly 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Sauytbay admitted to crossing the border illegally to join her family in Kazakhstan, an offence that usually triggers deportation under the country's criminal code.

Instead, a court in August gave her a suspended sentence and freed her from prison, as public interest in the trial surged.

In her court testimony Sauytbay said she had been forced to work in a re-education camp where some 2,500 Kazakhs were interned.

Chinese authorities had blocked her efforts to reunite with her family, who recently gained Kazakh citizenship, because she knew "state secrets", she said.

Over a million people -- mostly ethnic Uighurs -- are allegedly being held in a secretive network of extra-judicial, political re-education centres, a United Nations panel of experts claimed in August.

Beijing described the panel's claim as "completely untrue".

China launched its "Strike Hard" campaign targeting separatism in Muslim-majority Xinjiang in 2014.

The crackdown intensified two years later when hardline official Chen Quanguoc -- infamous for his repressive rule in Tibet -- became the region's new Communist Party chief.

Kazakhs had previously avoided the extremes of repression suffered by the Uighur people, who have fallen under growing state surveillance under Chen's security regime.

Sauytbay's case put Kazakhstan in an awkward position as it seeks to promote itself as a key artery in China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road trade and infrastructure push.