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Detained Kazakh Activist, Lawyer Complain Of Pressure By Kazakh Authorities


Serikzhan Bilash speaks to reporters outside a courthouse in Almaty on February 13.

A detained activist in Kazakhstan who has campaigned against the internment of ethnic Kazakhs in neighboring China has said in an audio message that he was forced to make several video statements denouncing his activities.

In the audio message relayed by his group, Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland), on March 14, Serikzhan Bilash said he was pressured to make the statements by two plainclothes individuals who visited the place where he is currently under house arrest in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.

Bilash's lawyer wrote on Facebook that in one of the statements, Bilash pledged he would stop raising the issue of ethnic Kazakhs in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Omarova, one of Kazakhstan's most prominent human rights lawyers, said that officers of the Committee for National Security and police had also forced her client to fire her.

"I am followed by the officers of the Committee for National Security and Interior Ministry of Kazakhstan! They obstruct my professional activities. They do not allow me to work!" Omarova wrote.

In recent months, Bilash has organized several gatherings of ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who have settled in Kazakhstan and complain that their relatives in China are being held in what China calls "reeducation camps."

Bilash was detained on March 10 by police in Almaty and transferred to Astana. The Almaty headquarters of Atazhurt Eriktileri was also searched by police on March 10.

Accused of "inciting ethnic hatred," Bilash was placed under house arrest on March 11.

However, the charges against him have not been officially announced.

Bilash was born in Xinjiang, a large region of China that borders Kazakhstan. He is a naturalized Kazakh citizen.

In February, an Almaty court found Bilash guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organization and fined him 252,000 tenges, or about $670.

Bilash, who maintains his innocence, says his organization has been active since spring 2017, when stories about the detentions of many ethnic Kazakhs in western China began to emerge.

He says the group will continue to defend the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and that he will try again to formally register the group at the Justice Ministry.

The United Nations in August estimated that 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim indigenous people of Xinjiang were being held in "counterextremism centers" in the region.

The UN also said millions more had been forced into reeducation camps.

On March 13, the head the U.S. State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice expressed disappointment at the failure of Muslim countries to take a stand together against China's policies in Xinjiang.

Speaking ahead of a U.S.-sponsored event at UN headquarters in Geneva that is focused on the situation in Xinjiang, Kelley Currie praised Turkey for its recent criticism of China's treatment of Muslims.

Currie said Washington had hoped that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation would have jointly condemned the situation in Xinjiang as it has done regarding rights abuses against Muslims in Myanmar and Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 13 criticized China's mass detention of Muslims, saying Beijing was "in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations."

"Today, more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims are interned in reeducation camps designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities," Pompeo said.

Beijing is also "increasing its persecution against Christians, Tibetans, and anyone who espouses different views from those or advocates those of government -- or advocates change in government."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang on March 14 rejected Pompeo's criticism, calling his accusations groundless.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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