Kazakh police arrest activist who campaigned for human rights in Xinjiang

Serikjan Bilash, a prominent activist campaigning against Chinese internment camps, was arrested on Sunday

Serikjan Bilash, a prominent activist campaigning against Chinese internment camps, was arrested on Sunday Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

Kazakh police have arrested an activist who has campaigned for victims of China’s internment camps in Xinjiang, sealing his group’s office and taking its computers.

Serikjan Bilash, who has led a high-profile 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 Xinjiang, has been on diplomatic tiptoes since 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 said 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.

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 said. 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.

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.

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.