China is working to silence critics of its prisonlike re-education camps, with help from neighboring Kazakhstan
The thousands of videos posted on Kazakh human rights group Atajurt’s YouTube page follow a similar pattern: A distressed mother, brother, husband, or child holding up photos of a family member detained in re-education camps, reciting his or her ID number and recalling when and where the relative disappeared. The photos include chubby toddlers, grandfathers, young wives, and middle-aged men.
These video testimonies provide a peek into a world the Chinese government wants to keep hidden—Xinjiang in western China, where authorities have thrown more than 1 million Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim ethnic minorities into re-education camps. Atajurt has helped survivors share their stories with the world, disproving China’s claims that officials have merely set up “vocational training centers” to reform extremist thoughts.
Yet in March, Kazakhstan officials detained Atajurt’s energetic leader, Serikzhan Bilash, on suspicion of “inciting ethnic hatred” and placed him under house arrest. Kazakh police raided the Atajurt office in Almaty and carted off video equipment and hard drives in trash bags. For 20 days, the office remained closed: Police finally handed the keys back to Atajurt volunteers Tuesday.
Bilash, who was born in Xinjiang and is now a naturalized Kazakhstan citizen, always knew his work came at a great risk. When I spoke to him for my 2018 article “A Forgotten People?,” he expressed his concerns that China would come after him: “I’m afraid the Chinese Communist Party will ask our government to stop our organization and these people who have come from Xinjiang can’t tell the world what is going on.”
The Kazakhstan government has worked to get Kazakh nationals out of Xinjiang but has refused to criticize the camps openly. Kazakhstan, which lies directly to China’s northwest, is a key partner of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and will benefit economically from a new railway connecting Xinjiang to Europe.
Atajurt launched in 2017 as Chen Quanguo, China’s Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, intensified a crackdown on Muslim ethnic minorities, creating a high-tech surveillance state there. Atajurt volunteers traveled to towns all over Kazakhstan to interview Kazakhs who had family members in the camps, filming their stories and helping them petition the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to urge for their release. When they heard that students studying at Kazakhstan universities were being detained after returning to their hometowns in Xinjiang for summer break, they provided housing for students afraid to return home.
The volunteers used social media and international contacts to spread the stories of the detained far and wide: Nearly all the international reports describing the re-education camps rely on testimony from Kazakhs that Atajurt helped arrange. One of Atajurt’s most effective media campaigns surrounded the trial of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnically Kazakh kindergarten teacher in Xinjiang. Chinese officials forced Sauytbay to teach in a re-education camp for four months. After returning to her kindergarten job, police threatened to throw her into a re-education camp herself because her husband and children had secured Kazakhstan citizenship. She fled, illegally crossing the border into Kazakhstan. Officials there arrested her after China asked for her deportation.
At her trial, Sauytbay called the camp “a prison in the mountains” that held 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs. Guards monitored the malnourished detainees’ every movement, she said. “People didn’t dare to speak even a single word out loud,” she told The Globe and Mail. “Everyone was silent, endlessly mute, because we were all afraid of accidentally saying something wrong.” Atajurt invited international media to cover the trial, as it was the first time a teacher in the camps had escaped China.
Despite fears that the Kazakh government would extradite Sauytbay, last August the judge allowed her to stay in Kazakhstan. The next day, Chinese authorities retaliated by detaining her sister and two of her friends. A few days later, Sauytbay’s own lawyer barred her from speaking out, claiming that she was still in danger of being deported since she had not yet received asylum. Atajurt strongly objected, noting that the lawyer was silencing the only person with knowledge of the inner workings of the camps. Yet today Sauytbay still does not feel safe speaking about her experience as Kazakhstan has repeatedly denied her asylum.
Gene Bunin, a Russian-American researcher who is compiling the Xinjiang Victims Database, believes the Kazakh government may deal with Bilash the same way it dealt with Sauytbay: Bilash has a lot of support among the Chinese-born repatriated Kazakhs he has helped, as well as among international media, so the government likely won’t convict him. But at the same time, it couldn’t let him continue his work due to pressure from China. Bunin believes the government may try to silence him by prolonging the investigation process so that he can’t continue his activism.
In February, an Almaty court declared Bilash guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organization and ordered him to pay a fine of $670. Bilash argued that Atajurt was not a formal organization but a group of people concerned about Kazakhs in Xinjiang. He also said that he had tried to register twice last year, but the Justice Ministry had not cooperated.
Prosecutors plan to focus on a comment that Bilash, who is Muslim, made in February calling for “jihad” against the Chinese. Supporters say the comment was taken out of context and that he was referring not to violence but to spreading information about China’s actions. Bunin believes the Kazakh government doesn’t have a legitimate case against him: “Atajurt never positioned itself against the government, they’ve done things properly,” Bunin said. “They don’t criticize the [Kazakh] government, they only petitioned them to do something [about the detainees] … so it’s hard to prove he was a dissident in any way.”
Since Bilash’s arrest, volunteers at Atajurt have posted online hundreds of videos of Kazakh citizens calling for the activist’s release. With the office reopened, Atajurt volunteers are back at work documenting the stories of the detained, helping family members write complaints to the Kazakh government and international agencies, and connecting them with foreign reporters.
“We will carry out our historical mission and we will continue to work until the human rights of those who are oppressed in Xinjiang are guaranteed,” the group said in a statement.
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