Ahigh-profile activist campaigning for the release of ethnic Kazakhs affected by China’s crackdown on Muslims was arrested early Sunday, The Daily Telegraph has learned.
Serikzhan Bilash, the director of advocacy group Atajurt, was arrested in Almaty in the small hours of Sunday morning.
He was flown to Astana, the capital, likely to face criminal charges of extremism and inciting ethnic hatred, his partner, Leila Adilzhan, and his lawyer Aiman Umarova, told the Telegraph.
Ms Adilzhan said Mr Bilash called her Sunday morning from a policeman’s mobile and confirmed he was being held in Astana. Mr Bilash was born in China, moved to Kazakhstan about 15 years ago, and now holds Kazakh citizenship.
Sill, Ms Adilzhan worries “our government will send him to China.” Mr Bilash and his group, Atajurt, have highlighted the plight of ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims detained in China’s internment camps in Xinjiang, a far western province that shares a border with Kazakhstan.
The group provided financial support, petitioned authorities and taped testimonies from former detainees and those looking for missing family members. Mr Bilash’s arrest is “connected with his actions against Chinese camps, because he speaks publicly, openly about Kazakh people who are in the camps,” said Ms Umarova.
In a video posted online Sunday, Mr Bilash said he was accused of inciting ethnic hatred and was being held by police in Astana, and that he was not taken “by either the Chinese or Chinese spies.”
Photos sent by Atajurt members on Sunday showed bloodstains where Mr Bilash is said to have been arrested. Kazakhstan police also searched Atajurt’s offices Sunday, confiscating computers, documents, petition letters from families looking for detained relatives, and other materials, before sealing off the location in downtown Almaty.
China’s mass detention of one million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui and other ethnic minorities has been a sensitive issue in oil-rich Kazakhstan, given its growing business and investment ties with neighbouring China. State-restricted media in the Central Asian nation of 18 million has largely shied away from reporting on the camps.
Kazakhstan is such a key link on China’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road,” an infrastructure-led plan to boost Beijing’s global influence, that Chinese president Xi JInping first announced the initiative from Astana in 2013.
But the situation has become a diplomatic nightmare for Kazakh authorities, working to maintain good relations with China while also facing growing outcry over the treatment by Chinese authorities of ethnic Kazakhs. Mr Bilash has faced increasing harassment and pressure from Kazakh authorities for his work.
An Almaty court found him guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organisation, and hit him with a fine of 252,000 tenge ($656). Last month, security officials stopped him on his way to meet the Telegraph.
On Saturday, Mr Bilash posted a video saying he feared he was in danger after four strangers had shown up to Atajurt’s offices. “I’m quite worried the Kazakhstan government is taking action in order to please China,” said Patrick Poon, a researcher for Amnesty International, who has looked into China’s internment camps.
What Atajurt was doing “was helping other Kazakhs…I can’t see how that can be creating any trouble or causing any concern about breaking laws in Kazakhstan.” The Kazakh Foreign Ministry didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
“Both Chinese and Kazakh sides are interested in to put pressure,” Ms Umarova said. Authorities from both sides “don’t want to allow him to speak openly about the situation.”