Kazakh rights defender arrested over Xinjiang activism


Almaty (Kazakhstan) (AFP)

Kazakh police on Sunday arrested an activist who has campaigned for victims of China's re-education drive in Xinjiang, sealing his informal group's office and taking its computers.

Serikjan Bilash, who has led a loud awareness drive centred on ethnic Kazakh victims of China's crackdown in the region, was arrested in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty and flown to the capital Astana, his partner told AFP.

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".

Kazakh authorities have not made an official statement on the arrest.

The Central Asian country, which shares a border with the Xinjiang province, has been on diplomatic tiptoes since major trade partner China began to forcibly send ethnic Kazakhs to internment camps under its anti-extremism policy.

"They took my husband in the early hours of Sunday and transferred him by plane to Astana. It seems to be very serious," Bilash's partner Leila Adiljan said.

Adiljan told AFP that police had set bail at the local currency equivalent of more than $3,500 and that his Ata-Jurt rights group planned to raise the money.

- 'Victims' testimonies' taken -

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 told AFP.

The office was later sealed.

Bilash has hosted regular press conferences at the location, highlighting the plight of Kazakhs and other majority-Muslim groups in Xinjiang.

Human rights groups say China has placed as many as one million people in internment camps, while Beijing says these are vocational education centres aimed at combatting extremism through education and job training.

Bilash on Saturday said "suspicious" men in sports tracksuits had infiltrated an Ata-Jurt press-conference before being chased out, attributing them to "pressure on us from the Chinese."

"We will not retreat and will continue to do our work," Bilash said.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan's government is a Beijing ally that positions itself as "the buckle" in China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road trade and investment agenda, a strategy for infrastructure and development projects throughout Asia, Europe and Africa.

Kazakhstan's foreign ministry has entered into dialogue with Beijing over Kazakhs in Xinjiang, but only publicly broached the controversial facilities there in detail for the first time earlier this month.

In February Bilash was fined nearly $700 by a civil court in Almaty for leading an unregistered organisation but pledged to continue the group's work.

Ata-Jurt members have said that attempts to register the organisation with the authorities are thwarted.

The group was key in attracting international media coverage to the case of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from China who was jailed in Kazakhstan for crossing the border illegally last year.

Sauytbay went on to testify in court about the re-education system she had worked for as a state employee before fleeing China to join her family in Kazakhstan.

The court freed Sauytbay but Kazakh authorities have so far refused her asylum status.

A United Nations panel of experts has said that over a million people -- mostly ethnic Uighurs but also members of the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Hui muslim minorities, are being held in camps across Xinjiang.