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Gene Bunin © 2021 Gene Bunin/Courtesy Photo

(Berlin) – Kazakh authorities have banned a Russian-American researcher from the country for five years in apparent efforts to stymy his work documenting abuses of ethnic minorities in neighboring China, Human Rights Watch said today.

The researcher, Yevgeniy (Gene) Bunin, had been doing research about abuses in Xinjiang, a northwestern region of China that borders Kazakhstan. Bunin learned of the ban when he arrived at the Almaty International Airport on September 4, 2021.

“Banning Bunin is a new low in Kazakhstan’s response to China’s ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakh government should reverse the ban and allow Bunin to carry out his important research, including with ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan who have fled Xinjiang or have relatives who have been detained or disappeared there.”

Bunin, 36, is the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database, a website documenting the cases of over 24,000 people detained, disappeared, or otherwise abused in Xinjiang since September 2018.

Passport control agents at the Almaty airport served Bunin with a written deportation order, a photograph of which he posted on his Facebook page, but it did not include the grounds for the decision. Neither Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, nor its Border Service, nor Foreign Affairs Ministry has provided an explanation when Bunin or reporters subsequently contacted them.

In a Facebook post Bunin uploaded the evening he found out about the ban, he noted, “I flew to Almaty tonight and was turned away at passport control.… A passport control worker soon came over and clarified that I was banned from entering Kazakhstan for five years.”

The Chinese government’s abusive crackdown on Xinjiang involves the mass arbitrary detention of ethnic minority citizens – primarily Uyghurs, but also Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Huis too. As a result of Kazakhstan’s long-standing policy of encouraging ethnic Kazakhs from abroad to settle in Kazakhstan, many ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang have family in Kazakhstan. According to official figures reported in the media, more than one million ethnic Kazakhs have repatriated to Kazakhstan since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, mostly from neighboring countries like China and Uzbekistan.

Ethnic Kazakhs protesting for the 100th day outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan over the detention of their relatives in Xinjiang, China, while police stand by, May 18, 2021. © 2021 Paul Bartlett

Kazakhstan shares a long border and has deep economic ties with China. The Kazakh government has previously shown a readiness to sacrifice respect for human rights in an effort to maintain good relations with the Chinese government, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2019, Kazakh authorities prosecuted the ethnic Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash, who has exposed human rights violations against Turkic Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, on vague and overbroad criminal charges of “inciting social discord,” and only released him on condition that he completely cease his Xinjiang activism. Eventually Bilash fled Kazakhstan and resettled in the United States. Kazakh officials repeatedly denied registration to Bilash’s human rights group, Atajurt Human Rights, with whom Bunin collaborated between 2018 and 2020, when he was living in Kazakhstan.

More recently, Kazakh authorities have been cracking down on a small group of ethnic Kazakhs who, for the last six months, have been staging daily peaceful protests outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty, demanding their loved ones be released from detention in Xinjiang and allowed to join them in Kazakhstan. Over the last few months, authorities have fined and detained protesters, and more recently, have prosecuted several of them, whom courts sentenced to 15 days in detention for violating Kazakhstan’s highly restrictive rules on holding peaceful assemblies.

While Human Rights Watch is not aware of any forcible returns of ethnic Kazakhs from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang in recent years, Kazakh authorities have discouraged people fleeing persecution in Xinjiang from seeking refuge in the country. Since 2017, only four people are known to have been granted temporary refugee status, while the authorities have readily prosecuted several people from Xinjiang for illegal border crossing.

Bunin lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan from May 2018 until November 2020. He left Kazakhstan after the government imposed more stringent visa requirements for foreigners in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, Kazakhstan authorities relaxed some of these rules for people from neighboring countries. Bunin had most recently tried to enter the country using his Russian passport.

Bunin has also been denied entry to Uzbekistan in recent years. Uzbek officials turned him away at the border in November 2019 and again in March 2020 when he tried to enter on his Russian and US passports respectively.

“Ethnic Turkic people from Xinjiang, the very people whose cases Bunin and others have been documenting, are in need of protection, not prosecution or arrest, and Kazakhstan should do more to offer them refuge,” Williamson said. “Banning Bunin from Kazakhstan does little more than cast further doubt on the Kazakh government’s commitment to upholding human rights and rule of law, and the decision should be reversed.”

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