Authorities in Kazakhstan have placed activist Serikzhan Bilash under house arrest for two months on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” after he campaigned for the release of fellow ethnic Kazakhs from detention in China, prompting concerns the move was made in response to pressure from Beijing.
A Kazakh citizen born in neighboring China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Bilash and his group Atajurt work to release ethnic Kazakhs from political “re-education camps,” where authorities in the XUAR are believed to have detained more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
Reuters news agency cited Atajurt in a report, saying security forces had broken into Bilash’s hotel room in Almaty early on Sunday, detained him and quickly flown him to the Kazakh capital Astana.
On Monday, Agence France-Presse cited Bilash’s lawyer Aiman Umarova as saying a court had ruled that her client be released to house arrest for two months until he is tried for “inciting ethnic hatred.” Under the terms of the arrangement, he will not be permitted to engage in activism.
RFA’s Uyghur Service confirmed the reports through one of Bilash’s associates on Monday.
According to AFP, police have sealed Atajurt’s office, confiscating computers and other equipment activists said contained data about re-education camp detainees in the XUAR, and have refused to return the key to the building.
Reuters quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang in Beijing as saying he was aware of Bilash’s case, and suggesting the activist had illegally entered Kazakhstan last year.
“According to what is understood he may have some debt problems in China,” Lu told Reuters.
“This kind of person has ulterior motives to make things up. I think the aims behind this need no explanation,” he added, without elaborating.
Bilash’s arrest has drawn significant attention in Kazakhstan, which is a major trading partner of China, but whose citizens are wary of Beijing’s policies toward their ethnic brethren and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR.
While Astana has refrained from criticizing Beijing, the Kazakh government has negotiated the release of around two dozen people of dual Kazakh and Chinese citizenship detained in China.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, called Bilash’s arrest “a political decision, not a legal one.”
“I believe Kazakhstan arrested him due to enormous pressure from the Chinese government,” Isa said.
“Serikzhan Bilash hasn’t violated any Kazakh or international laws in pursuing the human rights of Kazakhs detained in China’s re-education camps,” he added, calling on authorities in Kazakhstan to release the activist and allow him to return to his work.
Ilshat Hassan, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, told RFA that instead of arresting Bilash, the Kazakh government should be providing assistance to him and his organization.
“As an independent and sovereign state, Kazakhstan should protect its own people and not take orders from China,” he said, calling for the activist’s “immediate release.”
Bilash’s arrest came as U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback on Monday defended his claim that re-education camps in the XUAR were “created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities as part of Beijing’s wider “war with faith,” following a tersely worded statement from China’s foreign ministry condemning his remarks.
Last week, while presenting a speech on religious freedom at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, Brownback accused authorities in the XUAR of persecuting Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and practitioners of Falun Gong, but warned China that its attack on faith is one “they will not win.”
On Monday, Lu Kang dismissed Brownback’s statement, saying China “protects its citizens' freedom of religious belief in accordance with law,” and accusing Washington of “cooking up or using the so-called religious issues to interfere in other countries' internal affairs.”
Lu specifically addressed the situation in the XUAR, saying the authorities had set up “vocational and educational training centers as a preventive measure against terrorism and extremism,” and that government policies in the region “enjoy extensive support from all ethnic groups.”
Responding to Lu’s statement during a forum on religious freedom on the democratic island of Taiwan on Monday, Brownback said his office had tracked down information on hundreds of Uyghurs in the XUAR that are missing and believed detained for their faith.
"Where are they? What is happening to them? Why can't their family members hear from them?" Brownback asked, according to media reports, which said the ambassador called on China’s government to provide the whereabouts of the individuals.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Rubio and Chris Smith of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
Since 1999, the U.S. has designated China a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.