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Activist Vows To Continue Fight For Ethnic Kazakhs In Xinjiang Despite Fine

Serikzhan Bilash says he will appeal the ruling.
Serikzhan Bilash says he will appeal the ruling.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A court in Kazakhstan has found the leader of a group that has raised concerns over problems faced by ethnic Kazakhs in China guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organization.

The court in Almaty issued the verdict against Serikzhan Bilash on February 13 and ordered him to pay a fine of 252,000 tenges ($670).

Bilash said he will appeal the ruling and insisted that his group, Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland), will continue to defend the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.

He also said he will try again to register the group at the Justice Ministry.

Bilash pleaded not guilty as his trial started in Almaty on February 12.

He said his group, which he said had been active since spring 2017, was 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.

Bilash, who was born in Xinjiang, is a naturalized Kazakh citizen.

In recent months, he has 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 the Chinese region bordering the Central Asian country.

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.

Some 40 percent of the population of 22 million in the region that borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are Han, China's largest ethnicity.

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.

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 against the reeducation camps for Muslims were held in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia's Tatarstan region.

China denies that the facilities are internment camps.

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