Astana Tries to Silence China Critics

Serikzhan Bilash

MARCH 11, 2019, 1:18 PM

ASTANA, Kazakhstan—For the past two years, the organization Atajurt Eriktileri (“Homeland Volunteers”) has been on the front lines of documenting and raising awareness about the mass detentions in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Atajurt is a Kazakhstan-based organization of volunteer activists and family members who have lost relatives to China’s crackdown on mostly Muslim minorities, principally Uighurs but also ethnic Kazakhs and others. The group’s office in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, has become one of the few windows into a sealed region for international journalists and organizations by hosting regular press conferences and posting video testimonies of recently released detainees from Beijing’s vast network of internment camps, estimated to hold somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million people.

All the while, the Kazakh government—caught between placating a vital political and economic partner in Beijing and assuaging a populace dismayed over the fate of ethnic Kazakhs in neighboring China—has tolerated Atajurt’s grassroots activism as more and more ethnic Kazakhs have joined Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang’s camps.

But the dramatic arrest of Serikzhan Bilash, the head of Atajurt, in the early hours of Sunday morning appears to mark the end of Kazakhstan’s balancing act, with the local authorities moving against one of the largest firsthand resources for information about Beijing’s internment system and silencing a prominent local critic of China’s policies.


“This is not justice—it is just a way to stop Serikzhan,” Leila Adilzhan, Bilash’s wife, told Foreign Policy on the phone. “He devoted himself to helping people and did it because he wanted Kazakhs in China to be free.”

Bilash was arrested in his hotel room in Almaty on Sunday by Kazakh security services after being harassed and followed Saturday night by men he said were wearing earpieces. In a message sent to several reporters prior to being arrested, Bilash said he feared for his safety, and according to other Atajurt activists, he decided to rent a hotel room Saturday night instead of going home. Video circulated Sunday morning by activists showed that Bilash’s downtown hotel room had been turned over, with bloodstains found on the floor. He was then brought north to the capital, Astana, where he was detained and on Monday released on house arrest, where he is awaiting trial.

Mihra Rittmann, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told FP that the case against Bilash is worrisome given how Kazakh authorities transferred him to Astana “without explanation.” The government has also charged Bilash with extremism and “inciting discord,” vaguely worded articles of the law that Rittmann says have been “misused” by the government in the past to convict and silence its critics.

“Many people around the world now know about what is happening to Kazakhs and others in China because of him, and this made him a target.”

The move against Bilash coincided with a raid on the offices of Atajurt by local law enforcement. Agence France-Presse correspondent Chris Rickleton captured footage of officers raiding the organization’s Almaty offices and taking away bags that contained computers, hard drives, and cameras that Atajurt members told FP held important information about ethnic Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang internment camps.

“This is completely wrong. [Bilash] is the leader of an organization, not an extremist,” said Aiman Umarova, a prominent Kazakh human rights attorney who advises Atajurt, during an interview Sunday night. “Many people around the world now know about what is happening to Kazakhs and others in China because of him, and this made him a target.”

Umarova flew from Almaty to Astana on Sunday to submit her paperwork to represent Bilash as his lawyer, but she said that the authorities initially refused to accept her documents, saying that Bilash was represented by a state-appointed lawyer instead. Umarova returned to meet with investigators on Monday, and she told FP that they have now recognized her as Bilash’s attorney. The Atajurt leader was also released on house arrest Monday night in Astana with several restrictions, according to Umarova. Bilash will be confined to a friend’s house in Astana, far from his family and supporters in Almaty, and will be subject to electronic monitoring. Umarova also said that the judge ordered Bilash to not be active with any organizations or to give interviews to media or members of the public while he awaits his court appearance in two months.

“To me, this shows that our government believes that relations with China are more important than the rights of its own citizens,” Umarova said.