“Window into Xinjiang” Closes with Kazakh Arrest

“Window into Xinjiang” Closes with Kazakh Arrest

As the Chinese government has detained more than a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in internment camps in Xinjiang, thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, who have long lived on the Chinese side of the border, as well as Kazakh citizens, have also been swept up. Serikjan Bilash, a Xinjiang-born human rights activist in Almaty, Kazakhstan, has played a critical role in raising global awareness of the camps by documenting the detentions, advocating on behalf of detained Kazakhs, and facilitating interviews with foreign media. On Sunday, Kazakh police detained Bilash and raided his offices at the Ata-Jurt rights group, before transferring him to the capital Astana. AFP reports:

Bilash appeared on Sunday in a video filmed by Kazakh police confirming he was facing charges of inciting hatred, although it was not immediately clear what motivated the charges.

He said he had not been taken “by either the Chinese or Chinese spies”.

[…] An AFP correspondent saw a group of Kazakh law enforcement officers leave the office used by Ata-Jurt with black plastic bags on Sunday.

The policemen refused to comment but office volunteers said the bags contained computers, cameras and hard drives with information about people detained in Xinjiang.

“There are lots of testimonies of victims on those computers,” Gulzhan Toktaysn, a volunteer at the office said. The office was later sealed. [Source]

Kazakhstan’s government is a strong ally of China’s especially as Beijing advances its Belt and Road Initiative across central Asia and beyond. Despite growing protest within the country against China’s treatment of Kazakhs, Astana has consistently failed to speak out against the detention camps. Bilash himself has been targeted by authorities at least since last year, when he was warned by prosecutors against participating in a political rally in Almaty. Last month, he was fined for “illegally leading an unregistered organization.” Chris Rickleton reports for Eurasianet on possible reasons for Bilash’s detention:

Bilash has been relentless, impassioned and single-minded in his focus on the alleged rights abuses perpetrated by Chinese authorities against the ethnic Kazakh community in their western Xinjiang province.

His activism has made life uncomfortable for the government in Astana, which is deeply reluctant to entertain anything that might upset its allies in Beijing. Kazakhstan has responded with muted apprehension to the escalating slew of accounts about how China’s government has, as part of a super-charged anti-extremism campaign, interned hundreds of thousands of people from Xinjiang’s Muslim population, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, in so-called reeducation camps. Eschewing all criticism, Astana’s emphasis has instead been on prioritizing “mutual trust, good neighborliness and respect.”

Bilash’s dramatic detention may have been intended to maintain those cordial relations. Some time after midnight, early on March 10, government agents grabbed the activist from his hotel room in Almaty where he was staying as a temporary security measure. Later, he was loaded onto a plane and flown 1,000 kilometers northward, to Astana. Once there, he was informed that he was being charged with inciting ethnic hatred.

Last year’s note from prosecutors was just one in a string of warning shots from authorities spooked by the mounting popularity of an independent political player. [Source]

For The Diplomat, Catherine Putz had earlier written about Kazakhstan as a “window” into the situation in Xinjiang as former detainees and their relatives there have been able to document the conditions and extent of the camp network and speak with foreign media. Bilash’s group was a key part of that work, Putz writes:

As the pace and scale of detentions in Xinjiang accelerated, ethnic Kazakhs with relatives on both sides of the Kazakhstan-China border came to occupy a position of critical importance in international reporting. Numerous reports about the camps established by the Chinese government to detain the Muslims of Xinjiang — Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and others — cite the experiences of ethnic Kazakhs. It cannot be overstated how important Bilash’s activism has been to the sum of what we know about the situation in Xinjiang.

[…] It appears, as another regional watcher commented to me recently, that Astana has a hard limit to how much agitation it will accept. Bilash’s arrest demonstrates that Astana plans to respond to growing domestic agitation much as it always has: With intimidation tactics aimed at securing silence from problematic individuals. Bilash, like many accused of various kinds of “incitement” in Kazakhstan, is likely to be charged, convicted, and packed off to prison. Or, as his wife fears, he could be handed over the China.

Reuters cited Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang commenting on Bilash’s arrest with a smear: “According to what is understood he may have some debt problems in China… This kind of person has ulterior motives to make things up. I think the aims behind this need no explanation.”

Lu is correct: The aims behind Bilash’s detention need no explanation. [Source]

Ethnic Kazakhs with ties to Kazakhstan come in for special scrutiny and are more likely to end up in camps if they return to China. Several such people have shared their accounts after being released and returned to Kazakhstan. Earlier this month in The New York Times, Austin Ramzy profiled one Kazakh, Baimurat, who had worked as a guard in a Xinjiang camp. Ramzy also interviewed Bilash for the report:

In a series of recent interviews in Kazakhstan, where he and his family fled last year, Mr. Baimurat offered a rare, firsthand glimpse into the workings of Xinjiang’s security forces — and the dilemmas that many employed by them grapple with daily.

Mr. Baimurat, who goes by only one name, said he had decided to speak out because he regretted working for the police in Qitai county outside Urumqi, the regional capital. He also described how close he came to ending up in a camp himself.

“I feel an obligation because I have seen so many people suffering in the camps,” he said.

[…] Since going public last month, Mr. Baimurat has received anonymous telephone calls warning that his relatives in China would be placed into camps if he did not recant, said Serikzhan Bilash, an activist who helps ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang.

Reid Standish and Aigerim Toleukhanova reported earlier this month for Foreign Policy on the deep ties between Kazakhs on both sides of the border, and the importance of networks such as Bilash’s in advocating for detainees:

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan opened its doors to ethnic Kazakhs scattered outside its borders as part of a repatriation program that offered a pathway to citizenship. The influx has mostly come from neighboring Central Asian countries and China, but the flow of immigration has also left families divided across the border and separated by multiple citizenships and residence statuses.

That made life hard for many Kazakhs in China. Spending time in a foreign country, even a close neighbor like Kazakhstan, is one of the many warning flags used by Chinese security forces to determine who to imprison. As Beijing’s dragnet has expanded from Uighurs to other Muslim minorities, ethnic Kazakhs have been increasingly targeted for visiting family across the border. Bureaucratic excuses such as collecting a pension or signing documents to finalize their status outside of China were often used to force their return to Xinjiang. Other detainees include naturalized Kazakh citizens born in China, with Beijing refusing to acknowledge that they had relinquished their Chinese citizenship, according to multiple interviews conducted by FP.

[…] Atajurt, which Bilash says has documented close to 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs who have been detained, has been successful in raising awareness about the camps in Xinjiang. Bilash intends to appeal his recent fine and will attempt again to officially register Atajurt, but he said that the organization will continue to be a target for further legal actions so long as it continues its sensitive work.

“I think they will stop us. They will try to close our organization,” Bilash said in an interview. “We collected so many testimonies and shared them with the world. That makes us a big enemy for the Chinese government.” [Source]

Eurasianet reported on the arrest of Kazakhs by Chinese police in the border region:

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