A court in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan yesterday held a first hearing of a case against a Chinese-born activist accused of inciting ethnic discord while opposing Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang.
Serikjan Bilash, a naturalized Kazakh citizen born in Xinjiang, was detained in March before being placed under house arrest.
The popular campaigner has helped spotlight alleged rights abuses perpetrated against Turkic minorities in Xinjiang.
Critics say his arrest appeared to be the result of pressure from Kazakhstan’s economically powerful neighbor.
Bilash’s supporters — mostly ethnic Kazakhs born in China — packed a court in the Kazakh capital, Nursultan, and cheered after a judge ruled that the case be transferred to a court in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, because that is where Bilash allegedly committed his crime of extremist speech..
Bilash’s lawyer Aiman Umarova had appealed for the switch, citing Bilash’s desire to serve house arrest in Almaty with his family, from whom he has been separated since his detention.
The judge ruled that Bilash must remain under house arrest with his family in Almaty.
The Chinese Communist Party’s dragnet in Xinjiang has swept up an estimated 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities into “vocational education centers” that numerous studies and reports say are instead harsh internment camps.
There are about 1.5 million Kazakhs in Xinjiang, making them the second-largest Turkic group in the region after the Uighurs.
Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan have used Bilash’s informal rights group Atajurt to appeal to the Kazakh government to lobby China for their relatives’ release.
Kazakhstan has refused to register the group, which volunteers say is due to pressure from Beijing.
In May, Bilash called for an informational “jihad” to oppose Chinese pressure on minorities in Xinjiang.
He faces a maximum penalty of seven years in jail for the comments, which his supporters say have been taken out of context.
The Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year claimed that China had allowed 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs to leave the country and enter Kazakhstan, but refused requests for further information.
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