A rights activist in Kazakhstan who faced seven years imprisonment over his outspoken opposition to neighboring China was unexpectedly freed on Friday as public and international pressure over his case mounted.
Serikzhan Bilash, whose activism in defense of Muslim and Turkic minorities in Xinjiang earned him global media attention, told reporters he struck a plea bargain with the court that allowed him freedom but must end his activism.
“I had to end my activism against China. It was that or seven years in jail. I had no choice,” Bilash said at a restaurant where he held a celebratory midnight feast with his family and about 40 supporters.
Bilash — an ethnic Kazakh who was born in Xinjiang, but obtained Kazakh citizenship as an adult — agreed to accept guilt over inter-ethnic incitement charges triggered by his call for an “information jihad” against the Chinese authorities over their policies in Xinjiang earlier this year.
He is also unable to leave Almaty — Kazakhstan’s largest city — for the next three months under the terms of his deal, he said, adding that he expects his supporters to continue with the work of his informal Atajurt activist group.
“I had to do this for my family and my children,” he said as supporters in high spirits drank tea and ate a traditional meat-and-potato dish.
His release capped a dramatic night in Almaty, where about 200 hundred supporters surrounded the court where Bilash appeared and chanted for his freedom.
His lawyer, Aiman Umarova, had sounded the alarm earlier in the evening as she was unable to make contact with Bilash who had arrived at the courthouse before her and was immediately taken in by authorities.
Umarova refused to sign the plea bargain, insisting on her client’s innocence, meaning that Bilash had to find another lawyer to sign off on the deal.
“I refuse to put my name to any deal that was signed under pressure,” Umarova said.
Bilash had previously been held under house arrest after being detained and flown to the capital, Nur-Sultan, in March.
Critics connected his arrest to pressure from Kazakhstan’s economically powerful neighbor.
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 harsh internment camps.
With a population of at least 1.5 million, Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic group in Xinjiang after the Uighurs.
In July, a court in Nur-Sultan ruled to transfer Bilash’s case to Almaty, where his family are based. Fiery orator Bilash had told the court Beijing was perpetrating a “genocide” against Turkic minorities in Xinjiang while “Chinese soft power” was working to “occupy our minds” in the Central Asian state.
Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan have used Bilash’s group, Atajurt, to appeal to the Kazakh government to lobby China for their relatives’ release.
Some supporters gathered outside the courthouse sporting t-shirts advertising a bid to nominate Bilash for the Nobel Peace Prize were former residents of Beijing’s notorious centers in the region.
Earlier this month, a man who returned to Kazakhstan after spending a year-and-a-half trapped in Xinjiang told reporters he believed Bilash’s activism had forced his release.
“Without Serikzhan and Atajurt, I would not be here,” said Tursynbek Kabiuly, who had his passport confiscated and was interrogated for six consecutive days in a jail after crossing into China to attend a relative’s funeral.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has engaged in quiet diplomacy with major trade partner China on Xinjiang, but has been reluctant to promote its efforts given sensitivities over the region.
Last year, the ministry said that China had allowed 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs to leave the country and enter Kazakhstan “as a kind gesture,” but refused requests for further information.
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