The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded that the Kazakh government violated international human rights law last year when it detained activist Serikzhan Bilash, who had raised the plight of indigenous ethnic groups in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Responding to a legal petition filed by the Washington-based Freedom Now human rights group, the UN concluded that Kazakhstan “was targeting Mr. Bilash for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and association.”
Kazakh authorities in March 2019 arrested Bilash, a Xinjiang native and naturalized Kazakh citizen who has campaigned for the release of ethnic Kazakhs from so-called reeducation camps in Xinjiang.
Bilash was charged with inciting ethnic hatred and held in custody for five months.
Bilash led the Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) group, which in 2018-2019 staged several gatherings of ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who have resettled in Kazakhstan and asked for help securing the release of their relatives and friends from reeducation camps in Xinjiang.
He was fined the equivalent of $300 and released from custody in August 2019.
“The unjust detention of Serikzhan Bilash epitomizes Kazakhstan’s relentless criminalization of peaceful expression,” said Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat. “Rather than heed Serikzhan’s call for international action to end mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang, his own government sought to silence him. We call on Kazakhstan to comply with the UN’s decision, expunge the charges against Serikzhan, and ensure he faces no further prosecution.”
The UN said in August 2018 that an estimated 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim indigenous people of Xinjiang were being held in what it described as "counterextremism centers" in northwestern China.
The UN also said millions more had been forced into internment camps.
Freedom Now called Bilash and his Atazhurt Eriktileri group among “the most comprehensive and reliable firsthand resources for information about the Xinjiang camps.”
China says that the facilities are "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allowing them to be reintegrated into society.
Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China's largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.