Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly, who crossed the Chinese-Kazakh border in October and are seeking asylum in Kazakhstan, went on trial on January 6.
They are charged with illegal border crossing and face possible deportation to China, where they say they will be persecuted.
The courtroom in Zaisan, a town of 15,000 near the Chinese border, was not big enough to include dozens of supporters who traveled there from different parts of Kazakhstan.
Those who were unable to get inside rallied outside the courtroom, demanding the two men be acquitted and given the status of legal residents in Kazakhstan.
Similar rallies were held in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and in Almaty, the Central Asian state’s largest city, on January 6.
The 25-year-old Alimuly told the court on January 6 that he had been detained in Xinjiang for questioning and faced incarceration at a Chinese “reeducation camp.”
Musakhanuly, 30, said he had previously spent five years in such a camp in Xinjiang. In September, he said, he was told by Chinese authorities that he would be sent back to one of the camps.
In August 2019, the United Nations said an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other mostly Muslim indigenous ethnic groups in Xinjiang were being held in “counterextremism centers.”
The UN said millions more had been forced into reeducation camps. China denies that the facilities are internment camps.
At the trial in eastern Kazakhstan, Judge Shynar Ospanova abruptly stopped the proceedings on January 6 after the testimony from the two defendants and announced that the trial would resume on January 21.
Defense lawyer Lazzat Akhatova filed a no-confidence motion against the judge, calling her justification for postponing the trial “inadequate.”
In August 2018, a court in Almaty refused to extradite Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen who was wanted in China on the same charges of illegal border crossing.
Sauytbay fled China in April and testified in an Almaty court that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang were undergoing “political indoctrination” at a network of “reeducation camps.”
She testified that Chinese authorities had forced her to train “political ideology” instructors for reeducation camps, giving her access to secret documents about what she called a state program to “reeducate” Muslims from indigenous ethnic communities.
Although she was not extradited to China, Kazakh authorities did not allow Sauytbay to stay in Kazakhstan. She later obtained asylum in Sweden.
Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China’s largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.