A prominent activist from Kazakhstan who is campaigning for the release of ethnic Kazakhs in China says he was forced to sign blank documents under house arrest.
Serikzhan Bilash, head of the advocacy group Ata Jurt, 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 Uyghurs, 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 Umanova.
Umanova 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 focused on helping the Kazakhs trapped in the Chinese internment camps. The activist, who is originally from China’s far western region of Xinjiang, has come under pressure from authorities in recent months. While overall his activities have focused squarely on the condition of ethnic Kazakhs and their families, he has occasionally made critical statements about the Kazakh authorities to Western journalists. For example, in November 2018, he told NPR that the Kazakh government had warned him four times to cease his activities.
“They’re silent about this because they need Chinese money. They’ve sold their religion. They don’t want heaven. They want renminbi,” he told NPR.
A court last month found Bilash guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organization and fined him the equivalent of $666. He has said that his attempts to register Ata Jurt in 2018 were denied repeatedly.
Shortly before last week, he reported being followed by unknown men.
By Nataliya Vasilyeva for The Associated Press. Altynai Sagydykova contributed to this report from Kyrgyzstan. The Diplomat contributed additional reporting.