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Activist Defending Ethnic Kazakhs In China Explains Why He Had To Flee Kazakhstan

Serikzhan Bilash is an ethnic Kazakh from China who moved to Kazakhstan in 2000. (file photo)
Serikzhan Bilash is an ethnic Kazakh from China who moved to Kazakhstan in 2000. (file photo)

Tens of thousands of ethnic Kazakhs in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have been sent to "reeducation camps" along with hundreds of thousands of others from that western province after being rounded up by China because they are Muslims.

Serikzhan Bilash is one of the people who helped bring this great injustice to light by exposing the suffering of ethnic Kazakhs at the camps in Xinjiang.

An ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang who moved to neighboring Kazakhstan in 2000, Bilash received Kazakh citizenship in 2011 under the "oralman" program, which was designed in 1991 to entice ethnic Kazakhs abroad to resettle in sparsely inhabited Kazakhstan.

In 2017, Bilash founded the Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) organization to keep track of ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs in Xinjiang as Beijing began implementing its latest and by far harshest campaign against perceived separatists, who were overwhelmingly Chinese Muslims.

But China is a major investor in and trade partner of Kazakhstan.

That brought the 46-year-old Bilash and his work into conflict with Kazakh authorities, and he was arrested and charged with inciting ethnic hatred in March 2019.

But amid an international outcry and quite a lot of rumbling from inside Kazakhstan -- where many people wondered why the government would try to silence someone defending ethnic Kazakhs against Chinese repression -- Bilash was convicted in August 2019 but given a fine and released from custody in exchange for promising to cease his activism for seven years.

But the pressure on Bilash, his family, and associates was massive and did not stop.

So, in late summer 2020, Bilash and his family began their journey to Turkey, where they have been since September 10.

He recently spoke with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, to explain why he chose to leave.

"In April 2020, two charges were filed against me [in Kazakhstan] -- desecration of the state flag and inciting hatred," he said.

Bilash attempted to register Atazhurt Eriktileri in Kazakhstan, but after his court case in 2019, Kazakh authorities registered another group called Atazhurt Eriktileri, which was a phony splinter group made up of members who took a soft stance against China.

Bilash then founded a group called Naghyz (the Real) Atazhurt.

Bilash told Azattyq that the desecration of the state flag charge stems from comments he made about a court case involving Saltanat Kusmankyzy, a Kazakh woman working for a Chinese company in Kazakhstan who was convicted of embezzlement in January 2020 and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Lawyer Ayman Umarova (left) with Serikzhan Bilash (file photo)
Lawyer Ayman Umarova (left) with Serikzhan Bilash (file photo)

Kusmankyzy's lawyer Ayman Umarova, who is also one of Bilash's lawyers, said the court refused to accept her client's evidence, which would have cleared her of the charge.

Bilash said his comments about Kusmankyzy's case were taken out of context and bizarrely presented as disrespecting the Kazakh flag.

Bilash said police conducted a linguistic analysis of the comments that showed nothing Bilash said amounted to denigrating the flag.

'A Heavy Blow'

Bilash said one of the people behind the inciting hatred charge was Erbol Dauletbek, the leader of the Atazhurt Eriktileri group registered instead of Bilash's group. Bilash said Dauletbek is trying to gain the rights to Bilash's Atazhurt Kazakh Human Rights channel on YouTube.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, asked Dauletbek about the claim but he denied filing any legal complaints against Bilash.

Keeping the YouTube channel is part of the reason Bilash went to Turkey. Bilash officially registered the popular channel in 2013.

"There were not any mass arrests in China then…and there was not even an organization called Atazhurt," Bilash said.

He added that Kazakh police started coming to the apartment of Galym Rakizhan, the editor of the video for the Atazhurt YouTube channel, and threatened the owner, who finally told Rakizhan he must leave despite having lived there for many years.

Bilash then signed over the YouTube channel to Turkish citizen Babisalem Okitan, who is also a member of Naghyz Atazhurt and now in charge of programming for the channel.

Bilash said he has no plans to seek asylum in Turkey and intends to return to Kazakhstan. But he noted that cannot happen until he is cleared of charges there and the pressure against him, his family, and his organization ceases.

"On August 18, 2020, a court ruled that I was involved with the activities of an unregistered illegal organization and was fined…[the equivalent of $333]. Several members of Naghyz Atazhurt Eriktileri were also fined," he said. "That was a heavy blow for us."

"Any time I drove, [the police] stopped me without fail," Bilash said. "Day and night there are people and vehicles outside my house. My relatives and my wife's relatives have all been questioned."

'Branded A Terrorist'

Bilash said he was also put on a blacklist in Kazakhstan.

Bilash said Kazakh authorities have branded him a terrorist and, when his mother died and he went to the notary to sign over her property to his father, he was told it was not possible.

"It turns out that on their network I was shown to be a terrorist, I have a screenshot of it… from the computer at the notary public," Bilash explained.

He added that his bank accounts in Kazakhstan have been frozen and his car was impounded.

Bilash also recounted seven meetings he had in 2019 while he was under house arrest in Nur-Sultan and Almaty with a person named Maksat Iskakov, a representative that Bilash said was sent by President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

According to Bilash, at one of those meetings, Iskakov told him, "In September [2019], Mr. Toqaev is going to China and your sentence [and conviction] will be a present to the Chinese president."

Iskakov advised him to cooperate with Kazakh officials and agree to the deal whereby he would be fined and cease his activism for seven years.

"My goals were not to challenge Kazakh authorities, I wanted to defend the rights of Kazakhs and other Turkic-speaking peoples who were abused in China," Bilash said in explaining why he agreed to the deal.

Bilash also assured: "I am not a dangerous person to the authorities of Kazakhstan, I am not an opposition figure, not an opponent."

Bilash said he hoped Turkish authorities will register Naghyz Atazhurt. If that happens, Bilash said the group will then seek recognition as a human rights defender from international organizations.

Azattyq sent a copy of Bilash's interview to the Kazakh Foreign Ministry and the presidential administration seeking comment but there had been no response as of the time this report was issued.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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