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Kazakh Xinjiang Activist Bilash Transferred From Jail To House Arrest


Kazakh rights activist Serikzhan Bilash speaks to reporters outside a courthouse in Almaty last month.
Kazakh rights activist Serikzhan Bilash speaks to reporters outside a courthouse in Almaty last month.

ASTANA -- The detained leader of a group in Kazakhstan that has raised concerns over the internment of Kazakhs in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang has been transferred from jail to house arrest.

Serikzhan Bilash's lawyer, Aiman Omarova, told RFE/RL that that her client had been charged with inciting ethnic discord and was transferred to house arrest in Astana for a period of two months on March 11.

"Serikzhan's home is in Almaty, but because the investigation will be held in Astana, he will have to stay in the capital for two months," Omarova said. It was not immediately clear where Bilash would stay.

Bilash was ordered to cooperate fully with investigators, a spokesman for his group, Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland), Qairat Baitolla, told RFE/RL.

Bilash was detained in Almaty and taken to Astana on March 10. The Atazhurt Eriktileri headquarters in Almaty were searched the same day.

Bilash was born in Xinjiang, a large region that borders Kazakhstan, and 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.

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

Bilash, who denied guilt in court, said that the Volunteers of the Fatherland had been active since spring 2017.

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

Meanwhile, supporters of Bilash have uploaded more than 100 videos on Twitter with the hashtag #FreeSerikzhanBilash, demanding his immediate release.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang refused to comment on Bilash's situation, saying that Beijing did not comment on other countries' internal affairs.

On March 11, Lu said Bilash had debts in China, a statement that caused supporters to worry that Beijing might seek his extradition. But on March 12, the ministry spokesman said he had misunderstood the question about Bilash the previous day.

The United Nations said in August last year that an estimated 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 12, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, described the internment of Muslims in Xinjiang a "horrific situation."

He called for an independent investigation into the detentions and for the release of those being held.

China says that the facilities are not internment camps, but "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allow them to be reintegrated into society.

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