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Kazakhstan's ethnic Uighurs feel pressure of petro-politics
On this city's dusty edge, China's rise echoes through the dilapidated Soviet-era apartment blocks that are home to a wary community of Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group.
The Uighurs' fate in Kazakhstan has become entwined with the politics of oil. China's burgeoning appetite for petroleum has given it unprecedented sway with Kazakhstan to crack down on Uighurs who challenge China's regime.
"We are under heavy pressure," said Uighur political leader Kakharman Khozamberdi, who lives in Almaty. "I would like to organize meetings, but I am prohibited from doing that."
For half a century, China has waged a war within its own borders to stamp out a Uighur campaign for greater autonomy in the predominantly Uighur Xinjiang region. China calls that resistance, which has flared with protests and bombings, its No. 1 terrorist threat.
China's "strike hard" suppression of Uighurs has drawn criticism from human-rights groups and fueled a stream of refugees to Kazakhstan and other border nations, where China fears the refugees lend support to dissent at home.
Uighers contend that the newly expanding China is encouraging Kazakhstan to adopt Beijing-style treatment of opponents.
Khozamberdi said he is allowed to speak publicly only at Uighur funerals. So he never misses one.
"I take every opportunity to talk," he said.
Until the late 1990s, Kazakhstan permitted pro-Uighur groups a window of political mobility. Uighur-language newspapers could criticize Chinese rule.
That changed abruptly, say refugees as well as Kazakh and U.S. experts. Kazakhstan and China announced an agreement in 1999 not to tolerate "separatist groups" from the other country. Since then, all major Uighur political organizations have stopped working. In 1998, Kazakh state television broadcast Uighur-language programs three hours each week; today it has been reduced to 15 minutes a week.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also changed the Uighurs' fortunes. Afterward, Beijing released a report alleging links between Osama bin Laden and a militant Uighur separatist group. In August 2002, lobbied by Beijing, the Bush administration froze the group's U.S. assets.
Kazakhstan does not track the number of Uighur refugees it receives. But community leaders estimate that about 500 Chinese Uighurs are there at any one time, on the fringes of Kazakhstan's ethnic Uighur population of 220,000.
Kazakh authorities do not grant political asylum to Uighurs "due to political concerns," according to a UN High Commissioner for Refugees report.
Kazakhstan has extradited an unknown number of Uighurs to China, over the protests of international human-rights groups, which say returnees are likely to face torture or execution.
On March 8, a Chinese-born Uighur cell phone salesman named Yusuf Kader Tohti, 34, was arrested near Almaty and charged with immigration violations, said his wife, Gulnas Kurbanova. Two months later, investigators told her that her husband had been returned to Chinese authorities. She has not heard from him since.
"I don't know if he is alive or dead," said Kurbanova, 24, tears spilling down her cheeks in a park in downtown Almaty. "I don't know anything."
Amnesty International has asked for information on Tohti's and other cases but has not received it. Kazakh officials dispute that Chinese ties have led to greater pressure on Uighurs, yet they emphasize the importance of a closer relationship with China.
"On security," said the Kazakh energy minister, Baktykozha Izmukhambetov, "we have total understanding of each other."