‘Actions Against me Will Not Influence my Campaign to Support Uyghur Muslims’: Russian Activist

Bahram Khamreyev describes the challenges facing Muslims in Russia and China.
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‘Actions Against me Will Not Influence my Campaign to Support Uyghur Muslims’: Russian Activist Muslim worshippers perform Eid al-Fitr prayers outside Saint Petersburg's mosque, June 4, 2019.

A number of Russian and Central Asian media outlets have recently reported that Russian special services have launched a crackdown on Bahram Khamrayev, a well-known Russian human rights activist and member of the Memorial Human Rights Center. One outlet, Ferghana News Agency, published an article titled, “Attempting to deprive human rights activist Bahram Khamreyev of Russian citizenship,” which claimed that Russia fabricated allegations against the activist, who has advocated for the rights of migrants and Muslims from Central Asia to Russia. The targeting of Khamreyev comes amid increasing reports of attacks on human rights activists who have helped to defend the rights of citizens in former Soviet countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and others.

RFA’s Uyghur Service recently spoke with the Moscow-based Khamrayev in a series of interviews during which he strongly condemned China’s repressive policies in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017. He also discussed how the governments of Russia and China, which have Muslim populations of 20-25 million each, regularly violate the rights of these groups and how authorities in his home country have tried to stop his advocacy work.

RFA also spoke with Rustam Jelil, another Russian human rights activist, about how Russian authorities have employed a variety of fabricated evidence in an attempt to deprive Khamrayev of his citizenship. Yevgeny Zhovtis, a Kazakhstan-based human rights activist and director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, explained the differences in how the governments of Russia and China restrict their Muslim populations.

Khamrayev: Depriving me of my citizenship and taking other actions against me will not influence my campaign to support Uyghur Muslims. Protecting Muslims in Russia, including Uyghur immigrants, will continue to be my top priority. My actions as a human rights activist are [the same as] my political views. I think that a new political force will definitely be born in the process of working with the people suffering most among human rights activists. When [that political force] appears, international relations and human rights will qualitatively change. It is my project such as these that are currently under discussion.

The oppression of Muslims’ rights is taking place in both Russia and China. In particular, it is taking place in Muslim territories. But China is killing many Muslims. There, they are openly committing genocide. As for Russia, in addition to surveilling Muslims, they are also taking part in the bombing of Syria. If we are to compare the two, one is crudely killing Muslims, while the other is killing them more politely. Although the ideology of surveilling Muslims in both Russia and China ultimately comes from the same source, the methods they are using are different. As for the Uyghurs, it’s important to stress that countries such as the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands have formally recognized that a genocide is occurring at China’s hands. As for countries that are supporting China’s policies, [they are doing so because] they are also enacting the same kinds of policies toward Muslims.

Advocacy for Uyghurs ‘also part of the problem’

Jelil: Bahram Khamrayev is actively undertaking campaigns as a human rights activist. His advocacy for the rights of migrant workers as well as for political refugees from China, for example Uyghurs and Tatars, as well as his statements on Russian domestic politics, these are also part of [the problem]. Some people are even of the opinion that Bahram Khamrayev’s campaigns are related to what [jailed Russian opposition activist] Alexei Navalny is doing. Bahram is not only a human rights activist, he’s also a political figure. We cannot deny this. Baseless excuses are being used to attack Bahram Khamrayev.

Even so, there’s a difference, I think. The situation for Russian Muslims is negative. For example, the concentration camps built for Muslims in [the XUAR] don’t exist in Russia. Even if China had built such camps for all of its citizens, it has different policies for minority peoples and Muslims [than for the mainstream]. As for Russia, some of the activities of social and religious Muslim organizations have been restricted. All sorts of specially prepared “evidence” is used to accuse [Muslims in the XUAR] of terrorism and religious extremism. In Russia, Muslims have a voice, but they have no political power. Because of the communist ideology in China, they will not allow the promotion of ethnic ideologies or the rising up of Muslims.

‘No one can ensure their safety’

Zhovtis: A long time ago, Uzbek and Turkmen human rights activists would flee via Kazakhstan, and in the 90s they began seeking asylum in the country. Some of them went to Russia, while some of them even ended up settling in the West. Both Kazakhstan and Russia were places where they could hide and live. It was also possible to find help under the regimes of countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. But in the Putin era the situation has changed, and it is no longer possible to live in these countries. It is dangerous for human rights activists to continue living in these countries. No one can ensure their safety. The pressure on Russian activists is growing increasingly strong. There’s even a problem of their own advocacy for themselves. It’s possible that human rights activists such as Bahram Khamrayev are under the control of special work units in Uzbekistan and in Russia, because the two countries would never allow people like Bahram to act freely. The overall situation is growing more serious.

It’s difficult to say that the same kind of pressure exists for them as that in China. The Chinese and Muslims, these are cultures that will never be similar to one another. China is enacting oppressive, anti-Muslim policies under the name of fighting “terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “Uyghur separatism.” Although Russia is undertaking a fight against the same forces, Muslims are not under the same kind of pressure. Because Russia is a dictatorial regime, it opposes any signs of independence and freedom. Thus, pressure will be used against every form of activism by human rights activists and dissidents.

Reported by Oyghan for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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