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The Astana Court of Appeals sanctions the extension of Serikzhan Bilash’s house arrest by another month [translation]

The Astana Court of Appeals (its official name) dismissed the appeals of Almaty resident Serikzhan Bilash – the famous human rights defender for ethnic Kazakhs in China and leader of the unregistered organization “Atajurt Eriktileri” – and his lawyer, Aiman Umarova, in Nur-Sultan today. The appeals court has left unchanged the decision of the investigative court to extend his under house arrest in the capital until June 10.Bilash is being accused of “inciting ethnic hatred” (Section 2 of Article 174 of the legal code). The judge, Baqytzhan Toganbaev, justified his decree on the grounds that the investigation is still ongoing – specifically, that the expert assessment is not yet complete. He stated that, in accordance with the decree, the investigative court’s decision would go into force immediately, with today’s court order final and not open to appeal.As Bilash’s lawyer, Umarova – taking part in today’s court proceedings via videoconference from her home in Almaty – brought to the appeals court’s attention that the trial court had, in her opinion, dismissed unlawfully and groundlessly her request to transfer her client from Nur-Sultan to Almaty, so that he could be kept under house arrest at his place of residence. Umarova bolstered her arguments by saying that Bilash was not interfering with the investigation and that he had his family in Almaty – his wife and two small children. She also brought to the court’s attention the fact that the trial court essentially ignored the defense’s request to have Bilash released on bail.Brought to attend today’s appeals court session, Bilash said that he agreed with all of his lawyer’s points.Prosecutor Ernazarov, acting as the delegate at the appeals session, stated that the trial court had made its decision within the Criminal Procedure Code framework, asking that the appeals court leave the investigative court’s decision unchanged and dismiss Bilash’s appeal.Dozens of Bilash’s supporters came to attend today’s session. Though declared as open to the public, it was initially decided that only a small portion of the supporters be allowed in. However, the judge allowed everyone wishing to enter into the hearing room following Umarova’s categorical objection – something evident from the live transmission that she organized on Facebook.At the earlier trial court session, Bilash had stated that – following his being taken to the capital from Almaty on March 10 – he had been subjected to pressure intended to make him denounce Mukhtar Ablyazov, dismiss Umarova as his lawyer, and provide the evidence that the investigation wanted. At that same time, Bilash also stated that the case against him was politically motivated.Bilash was arrested in Almaty and taken to the capital in the early hours of March 10. The next day, the investigative court ordered to have Bilash transferred to house arrest and forbid him from leaving the city. In that same day, the capital’s prosecutor’s office stated that Bilash’s arrest was linked to the suspicion that he had supposedly made public calls to “jihad”. The word, which in the Islamic context means “diligence in the path towards God”, was used in the prosecutor’s office’s message as referring to “war against ethnic Chinese” – which, according to the supervisory body, is what Bilash was calling to.Concurrently, there was also a search at the “Atajurt Eriktileri” organization’s office in Almaty, with the office sealed thereafter. It would only reopen on April 2. According to the organization’s representatives, however, the police never returned the electronic media they had seized, nor a number of important documents.Umarova has on several occasions talked of how her client was being pressured – following his transfer from Almaty to Nur-Sultan – something that he himself brought up at the investigative court session on May 5. According to Umarova, the investigation made several unsuccessful attempts to keep her out of Bilash’s case, before she was once more allowed access to him. Following the conclusion of the appeals court session today, Umarova told an Azattyq reporter that today’s court decision stands in violation of Article 146 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which states that a person should be kept under house arrest at their place of residence.Bilash’s arrest and his subsequent transfer to the capital have elicited a large public response, with leading Western media covering the events around him. The American journal Foreign Policy called the “Atajurt Eriktileri” organization “one of the few windows into a sealed region [Xinjiang]”, where the “vast network of internment camps” has been “estimated to hold somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million people”. The publication viewed the persecution against Bilash as a move “against one of the largest firsthand resources of information about Beijing’s internment system and silencing a prominent local critic of China’s policies”. On March 13, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee issued a joint statement regarding the “situation of ‘Atajurt Eriktileri’ leader Serikzhan Bilash”, in which they called for the activist to be released.“Serikzhan Bilash has done an admirable job providing a voice to the voiceless and exposing large-scale human rights violations,” read the words of Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Bjørn Engesland, as part of the statement. “Instead of arbitrary punishment, his efforts should be met with commendation. We demand that Astana release him immediately.” Bilash is famous for his work on defending the rights of Kazakhs in Xinjiang, with his “Atajurt Eriktileri” organization (also known as “Atajurt”) having been one of the first to raise the issue of the repression of ethnic minorities in China and the “political re-education camps” there. Over the course of the past two years, Bilash and his organization have organized a number of press conferences, inviting journalists from both Kazakhstan and abroad. The participants in these conferences talked about the pressure on their relatives in China, about the “camps”, and about the difficulties in obtaining permission to leave China.

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