Kazakhstan silences the Xinjiang megaphone

The activist Kazakhstan detained over the weekend is a spoiler to relations with China.

Chris Rickleton Mar 11, 2019

Serikzhan Bilash (Eurasianet)

Security ser­vices in Kazakhstan had their steely gaze locked onto Xinjiang-focused activist Serikzhan Bilash long before his sud­den arrest over the weekend.

When a Eurasianet cor­re­spon­dent met Bilash for the first time last July, pros­e­cu­tors in his home city, Almaty, had just hand­ed him a for­mal cau­tion to refrain from par­tic­i­pat­ing in a ral­ly sum­moned by a for­eign-based oppo­si­tion figure.

Bilash, a charis­mat­ic pub­lic speak­er with a strong fol­low­ing among Kazakhstan’s repa­tri­ates – the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of a gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive to lure the eth­nic Kazakh dias­po­ra to their tit­u­lar home­land – was bemused.

I bare­ly know who this man and his group are,” he said, refer­ring to Mukhtar Ablyazov, the neme­sis-at-large of vet­er­an President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

I have one issue – and that issue is Xinjiang.”

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.

Plainclothes police­men were reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to the Almaty premis­es of Bilash’s unreg­is­tered Ata-Jurt orga­ni­za­tion. The group has been busi­ly hold­ing press events and show­ing video­taped tes­ti­monies of peo­ple alleg­ing alarm­ing excess by Chinese gov­ern­ment forces in Xinjiang.

This is our friend,” a beam­ing Bilash told a Eurasianet cor­re­spon­dent who attend­ed an event at the office in January, indi­cat­ing an unsmil­ing police­man stand­ing close by.

We are just pleased he lets us do our work,” Bilash added. 

On March 10, the same unsmil­ing police­man, who gave his first name as Baurzhan, watched on as oth­er offi­cers cart­ed com­put­ers and cam­eras out of Ata-Jurt’s office in black plas­tic bags before seal­ing off the premis­es. Several of the vol­un­teers present dur­ing the raid were lat­er ques­tioned by police. 

The poten­tial demise of Ata-Jurt as a win­dow onto devel­op­ments in Xinjiang is hard to underestimate.

Repeated tes­ti­monies filmed there by the Kazakhstan-based rel­a­tives of Chinese Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang have shed con­sid­er­able light on the shift­ing nature of state repres­sion in the region.

map of Khorgos

In recent months, some have had word that their loved ones were being released from the reed­u­ca­tion camps, only for them to be dis­patched to forced labor pro­grams. Others have learned their rel­a­tives were moved to pris­ons to begin serv­ing heavy sentences.

Gaukhar Kurmangaliyeva, whose cousin Askar Azatbek, a Kazakh cit­i­zen who was in December 2017 alleged­ly snatched by Chinese secu­ri­ty ser­vice offi­cers in the Khorgos freeport, a retail zone strad­dling the bor­der, is one of sev­er­al peti­tion­ers who made the tran­si­tion to becom­ing an Ata-Jurt volunteer.

Before watch­ing an online clip of one of Bilash’s pumped-up lec­tures last March, the part-time clean­er, whose job earns her around 50,000 tenge per month ($130), had no inkling of the scale of repres­sion in Xinjiang.

In Ata-Jurt, she found a com­mu­ni­ty of fel­low suf­fer­ers. They lis­tened to her read­i­ly. It took almost one year of con­stant emails and phone calls before she received an engaged response from Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry. In late 2018, offi­cials at the min­istry told her that Chinese author­i­ties had jailed Azatbek for vio­lat­ing laws pro­hibit­ing dual citizenship.

If they shut down Ata-Jurt and Serikzhan Bilash, where will we go?” asked Kurmangaliyeva.

Watch: Two Kazakh women inves­ti­gate the fate of rel­a­tives they say were grabbed by Chinese secu­ri­ty agents in Khorgos. 

Bilash has brushed off legal chal­lenges before. In February, a court fined him the equiv­a­lent of near­ly $700 for lead­ing an unreg­is­tered organization. 

But where some see a prin­ci­pled cru­sad­er undaunt­ed by threats, oth­ers see a dan­ger­ous demagogue.

In January, a group of Kazakh pub­lic fig­ures, includ­ing the for­mer law­mak­er and writer Mukhtar Shakhanov, signed a pub­lic let­ter con­demn­ing Bilash. The sig­na­to­ries described Bilash’s con­fronta­tion­al man­ner as divi­sive and said he was exploit­ing the Oralman, as Kazakh repa­tri­ates are known, to “score points.”

There is more harm than use from the Ata-Jurt vol­un­teers,” con­clud­ed the let­ter. Bilash lat­er told Eurasianet he was sum­moned by the police for ques­tion­ing over the con­tents of the letter.

Critics of the let­ter, mean­while, sug­gest the sig­na­to­ries were put up to the job by the government.

Bilash has also shed allies along his jour­ney to nation­al celebrity.

Kydyarali Oraz, who views him­self as the Ata-Jurt move­men­t’s founder, did as much as any­one to fight for the rights of Xinjiang Kazakhs, even rais­ing their plight at the United Nations in Geneva in November. 

But short­ly after that trip, the pair fell out. Bilash accused Oraz of finan­cial irreg­u­lar­i­ties and divid­ed loyalties.

Oraz has since formed a new group. To the sus­pi­cious cha­grin of his old com­rades, this group was swift in secur­ing gov­ern­ment registration.

After Bilash’s March 10 arrest, Oraz record­ed a video mes­sage express­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with Ata-Jurt and the wider Oralman com­mu­ni­ty. But rela­tions with his for­mer ally remain poor.

Anybody he dis­agrees with, he calls a Chinese spy,” Oraz com­plained in an ear­li­er inter­view with Eurasianet.

One per­son who has been unerr­ing in her sup­port for Bilash is per­haps the most impor­tant of all.

Former Chinese state employ­ee and Communist Party mem­ber Sayragul Sauytbay became a media sen­sa­tion last year when she became the first per­son to tes­ti­fy in court about China’s intern­ment camps. She was on tri­al and fac­ing pos­si­ble depor­ta­tion to China after Kazakh author­i­ties arrest­ed her for ille­gal­ly cross­ing into the country.

In large part because of Ata-Jurt’s atten­tion-rais­ing, the tri­al received a steady stream of local and inter­na­tion­al cov­er­age.

Following each hear­ing at Sauytbay’s tri­al, Bilash made impas­sioned speech­es to the Oralman, who would pack the small and stuffy court­room in the provin­cial town of Zharkent.

On one occa­sion, Bilash chased two pan­ic-strick­en Chinese diplo­mats attend­ing the tri­al as observers all the way back to their car.

Kazakh activists chase Chinese diplomat after trial

When the court freed Sauytbay, her sta­tus as a nation­al icon seemed assured.

But Kazakhstan’s author­i­ties have thus far refused Sauytbay per­ma­nent asy­lum, leav­ing her depen­dent on tem­po­rary exten­sions of her stay in the country.

That has left her open to pres­sure from author­i­ties, accord­ing to Sauytbay’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova, whose work defend­ing vul­ner­a­ble women earned her a U.S. State Department award in 2018.

Umarova claims the secu­ri­ty ser­vices recent­ly asked Sauytbay to dis­tance her­self pub­licly from Bilash. They sug­gest­ed nation­al tele­vi­sion as a suit­able forum for turn­ing on her cham­pi­on, Umarova said. 

They are tar­get­ing him because he is the loud­est voice rais­ing the rights of Kazakhs liv­ing [in Xinjiang],” Umarova, who has expressed will­ing­ness to rep­re­sent Bilash in any upcom­ing legal hear­ings, told Eurasianet. 

Sauytbay, how­ev­er, risked their wrath by refus­ing the offer.

She told me: ‘If I speak out against him, after every­thing that those peo­ple have done for me, who would I be then?’” Umarova said.

Chris Rickleton is a jour­nal­ist based in Almaty.

Original sto­ry on EURASIANET