On March 10 Kazakhstani authorities detained activist Serikzhan Bilash, in what appears to be a bid to silence one of the most prominent voices speaking out on rights violations in China’s Xinjiang province. Kazakhstani authorities must release Serikzhan Bilash, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law stated today.
Bilash heads the informal group Atajurt, a coalition of activists working to promote the rights of ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjinang province in northwestern China. Xinjiang is home to an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, in addition to large Uygur, Kyrgyz, Hui, Mongolian, and other minority, groups. In recent years the Chinese government has cracked down ruthlessly on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, interning up to one million members of the province’s minority communities in political re-education camps, according to estimates.
“Serikzhan Bilash has done an admirable job providing a voice to the voiceless and exposing large-scale human rights violations – instead of arbitrary punishment, his efforts should be met with commendation. We demand that Astana release him immediately”, says Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Documenting human rights violations
Since its foundation in 2017 Atajurt, and Bilash, have documented the cases of hundreds of ethnic Kazakhs who have been interned in Xinjiang, and shone a light on massive human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government. Lacking any other recourse, relatives of individuals interned in Xinjiang have turned to the informal group which has recorded their stories and brought international attention to China’s repressive policies towards ethnic minorities in western China. Bilash and Atajurt have played a major role in bringing the situation in Xinjiang to international attention.
“Serikzhan Bilash has done an admirable job providing a voice to the voiceless and exposing large-scale human rights violations – instead of arbitrary punishment, his efforts should be met with commendation” – said Bjørn Engesland, Seceretary General of NHC.
Risking five to ten years in prison
Aiman Umarova, a Kazakhstani lawyer representing Bilash told the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that state agents burst into Bilash’ hotel room in Almaty during the early hours of March 10, and subsequently forced him onto a plane headed for Astana. In Astana he was charged with incitement of national discord under article 174.2 of the Kazakhstani criminal code, a charge that carries punishment of five to ten years. Umarova told the NHC that authorities on March 11 transferred Bilash to house arrest awaiting trial. She further said that the detention of Bilash is politically motivated and designed to deter anyone from speaking up about rights abuses across the Chinese border.
“The detention and probable prosecution of Serikzhan Bilash not only violate international law and Kazakhstan’s human rights obligations – it deprives innumerable victims of grave human rights abuses of their only recourse”, says Sergey Duvanov, Head of the Information-Monitoring Centre at the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
In the authorities’ crosshairs
In recent times, Bilash and the Atajurt group have frequently found themselves in the authorities’ crosshairs – in February, Bilash was ordered by an Almaty court to pay approximately $700 in fines for leading an unregistered organization. According to credible sources Bilash has recently been under regular police surveillance and authorities have warned him repeatedly to cease activities.
State-controlled and pro-government media have been attacking Serikzhan Bilash and in essence blaming him for providing information on the situation in China to a western audience. There have also been smearing campaigns attempting to establish an impression of Bilash as a suspicious character acting on orders from abroad. In January a group of profiled individuals put forth demands that Bilash and his group cease all activities, accusing him of spurring tensions and sowing hatred, in a Soviet-era styled “letter to the public”.
The very fashion in which government agents seized Bilash in Almaty and hurried him onto a plane for Astana, as well as denying him access to his lawyer in the first hours following his arrest, are clear indications that the case is sanctioned by top-level officials. This is an alarming sign that Astana is prepared to ignore Kazakhstan’s constitution and its international human rights obligations, the groups said.