Kazakh activist decries official pressure in China spat

In this March 29, 2018, photo, Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent activist campaigning against Chinese internment camps, gestures as he speaks to The Associated Press at a restaurant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Bilash was arrested by Kazakh police at an Almaty hotel on Sunday, March 10, 2019 and taken to Astana, Kazakhstan's capital. The detention of hundreds of thousands and possibly over a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities in China's far west has been a touchy issue in neighboring Kazakhstan. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

MOSCOW — A prominent activist from Kazakhstan who is campaigning for the release of ethnic Kazakhs in China says he was forced to sign blank documents while under house arrest.

Serikzhan Bilash, head of the advocacy group Atajurt, was accused of "inciting ethnic hatred" and placed under house arrest in the Kazakh capital of Astana earlier this week, although the charges against him have not been officially announced.

The detention of possibly over a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities in Chinese internment camps has raised acute concerns in Kazakhstan, which heavily relies on trade with neighboring China. Bilash's group has been actively supporting relatives of those detained.

Bilash said in an audio message relayed by his lawyer, Aiman Umarova, that unknown officials visited his place late on Wednesday and pressured him into signing blank documents.

"They told me that if you want a lenient verdict, we can help you," Bilash said in the recording. "I had to sign several documents they wanted me to, some of them were blank."

Bilash did not specify what exactly he was forced to sign but said he signed an application to take a state-appointed attorney to replace Umarova.

Umarova told The Associated Press on Thursday she is expected to be granted a visit with Bilash next week.

A leading voice campaigning for ethnics Kazakhs in China, Bilash has tried to steer clear of any public protests that could be construed as criticism of the Kazakh government, focusing instead on helping the Kazakhs trapped in the Chinese internment camps.

But the activist, who is originally from China's far western region of Xinjiang, has come under pressure from authorities in recent months. A court last month found Bilash guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organization and fined him the equivalent of $666. Shortly before being placed under house arrest, he reported being followed by unknown men.

Bilash and his group's vigorous campaign to shed the light on the plight of ethnic minorities in China have been "a thorn in the side of Kazakhstan's government since it began operating," said Sean Roberts, director of the International Development Studies Program at the George Washington University.

Most of Atajurt's members are ethnic Kazakhs from China who were encouraged to repatriate to Kazakhstan decades ago by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's government.

Official pressure on Bilash and his group could backfire at a time when the nation faces economic problems.

"This is all the more politically dangerous at a time when domestic dissatisfaction about economic progress and social services in Kazakhstan is on the rise and there is on-going discussion in the country about presidential succession as Nazarbayev ages," Roberts said.

Kazakhstan has accommodated Beijing on sensitive ethnic issues in the past when it extradited ethnic Uighurs to China, but going after ethnic Kazakhs under pressure from China could potentially put the government in a fraught position.

"For many ethnic Kazakh nationalists, suppressing the voices of Kazakhs at the bequest of the Chinese could be portrayed as tantamount to treason," Roberts said.

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Altynai Sagydykova contributed to this report from Kyrgyzstan.

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