ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The leader of a group in Almaty that has raised concerns over problems faced by ethnic Kazakhs in China's Xinjiang region is on trial.
Serikzhan Bilash, who is charged with illegally leading an unregistered organization, pleaded not guilty as his trial started in Almaty on February 12.
Bilash said that his group, Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland), is not a formal organization but a group of people concerned over the fate of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
Nonetheless, he said that he sought to register it twice last year but that the Justice Ministry refused.
Answering the judge's question about the group’s office, Bilash said that the room it usually uses in Almaty is the office of a member who rents it for his business.
In recent months, Bilash organized several gatherings of ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who settled in Kazakhstan and complained that their relatives were held in so-called reeducation camps in Xinjiang, a large region in northwestern China that borders Kazakhstan.
The United Nations said in August last year that an estimated 1 million Muslims from Xinjiang were being held in "counterextremism centers."
The UN also said millions more had been forced into reeducation camps.
Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Kazakhs are the second-largest indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs, and the region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans.
After Kazakhstan gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang and elsewhere benefited from Kazakhstan's state program on resettlement of ethnic Kazakhs into the country.
Many of them obtained permanent residence in Kazakhstan or Kazakh citizenship, but continue to visit their relatives in Xinjiang on a regular basis.
Bilash, who was born in Xinjiang, is a naturalized Kazakh citizen.
China is a major trading partner for neighboring Kazakhstan, where state-controlled media has generally avoided reporting about the internment camps.
In recent months, several demonstrations protesting against reeducation camps for Muslims were held in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia's Republic of Tatarstan.
China denies that the facilities are internment camps.