China-critical human rights activists under pressure in Kazakhstan

Court hearing in Astana – fears that the civil society might lose its independence (Press Release)

Ein Gericht in Astana entscheidet heute in einer Anhörung, ob Vorwürfe pro-chinesischer Kreise gegen einen führenden kasachischen Menschenrechtler aufrechterhalten werden. Bild: BBC Worlnews, Flickr BB CY 2.0.

The Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) criticizes attempts to silence Kazakhstan's civil society and to force the people into line, stating that China is currently trying to intimidate critics in its neighboring country. "Kazakhstan is at a crossroads between democratization and the danger of falling back into dark times of dictatorship," emphasized Ulrich Delius, the STP's director, in Göttingen on Tuesday. A court in Astana will decide whether the pro-Chinese charges against Serikzhan Bilash, a leading Kazakh human rights activist, will be upheld. Bilash, who was arrested on March 9, 2019, is accused of having impaired the country's relationship with China by criticizing China's re-education camps in Xinjiang.

"If the authorities try to silence Kazakhstan's independent civil society, the European Union must respond and impose targeted travel bans and financial sanctions on Kazakhstan's state and intelligence agencies. Europe must not stand by and watch while methods from Soviet times become a part of everyday life in Kazakhstan again," Delius stated. Further, he demanded that the protection of the civil society should also be discussed in the scope of a German-Kazakh government commission meeting in Astana on May 20, 2019.

Following international protests, Serikzhan Bilash, founder of the human rights organization Atajurt, was released from custody on March 11, 2019 – followed by a two-month house arrest. If convicted, he might be facing up to 10 years' imprisonment under Article 174 of the Kazakh Criminal Code. Following his arrest, the authorities had closed down the human rights organization's office, and all computers and documents were confiscated. "Atajurt's office must be reopened immediately, and all the confiscated objects must be returned," the STP demanded, emphasizing that the allegations against Atajurt were arbitrary and that the human rights organization had only given a voice to the victims of the reeducation camps in China, demanding initiatives to protect them.

The accusations had been made by the pro-Chinese group Jebeu, an association of around 20 Kazakhs with close ties to China. In January 2019, Jebeu had published an open letter to the government of Kazakhstan, demanding a ban on Atajurt. "The key witnesses of the crimes against humanity in Xinjiang must not be intimidated by China's long arm," Delius warned. At least 1.1 million Muslim Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz were locked up in re-education camps in Xinjiang since April 2017. Atajurt had been trying to inform the people about the serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, and the organization is trying to protect the few camp inmates who have been released.

During the house arrest, intelligence officials had forced Bilash to record a video to disassociate himself from his lawyer Aiman Umarova. The well-known human rights lawyer has received many international awards for her work. 

Header image: BBC World Service Via Flickr.