Stephen M. Bland
Freelance Journalist, Award-Winning Author, Travel Writer, Researcher and Editor specialising in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
One Criminal Case Dropped, One Remains – An Exclusive Interview with Serikzhan Bilash
First Published 04/02/2021
The founder of the Atajurt Human Rights group, Serikzhan Bilash was freed from jail in Kazakhstan in August 2019 after agreeing to a plea deal over ‘inter-ethnic incitement’ charges – this despite the UN concluding he was targeted for ‘exercising his rights to freedom of expression and association.’ An ethnic Kazakh originally from Xinjiang in northwest China, Bilash moved to Kazakhstan and received citizenship. In 2017, he founded Atajurt, an organisation that campaigns for the release of ethnic Kazakhs held by the Chinese Government in Xinjiang and supports the relatives of detainees. Following a period spent in Turkey, Bilash is currently in the United States, from where I spoke to him exclusively.
‘I left Turkey on the 20th of January, Inauguration Day in the US,’ he told me. ‘I did not succeed in Turkey; I wanted to register my human rights organisation, Atajurt there, but they didn’t respond to my request. The government in Kazakhstan never registered our organisation; they want to stop us.
‘In February 2019, they accused me, and in March, they arrested me in a serious criminal case. I was under house arrest in Nur-Sultan City for almost six months, after which I signed a document in order to be released, but the Kazakh Government forbade me from taking part in any political activities for seven years.
‘In April 2020, they accused me again in the same matter, Kazakhstan criminal case number 174, so the police interrogated me and asked me about the organisation’s team members. Then, in June 2020 came a second criminal case in an attempt to shut down our Atajurt Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which they said we misappropriated. Most important was our YouTube channel which is very powerful and influential. More than half a million people follow it, and more people watch it than national TV. We refused to hand them over or shut them down, though, because we are only here to help people.
‘In 2018, the Kazakhstan Government registered a pro-governmental, pro-Beijing organisation called “Atajurt” – which means “Fatherland” – as part of their attempt to stop our activities. The organisation which was registered by the government denies the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang. A year later, they registered another organisation called “Atajurt,” and the same thing happened again. In the spring of 2020, they accused all of our team members - including me - in the administrative court and fined us a lot of money. Our crime was joining an illegal organisation because they refused to register us.
‘The interesting thing now is that since I’ve arrived in the US, the Kazakh Government have decided to close one of the criminal cases – case 174 - about “inciting hatred.”
According to his lawyer, Shynkuat Bayzhanov, the authorities said that Bilash had ‘insulted the state symbols of the Republic of Kazakhstan and caused social strife by saying the phrase “Kok dambaldyk zhelbiregeni” (translated as “Waving blue pants”) instead of the phrase “Kuk tudyk zhelbiregeni” (“Waving the blue flag”). The case was dropped because of a lack of evidence. The Almaty Police Department says that the pre-trial investigation was terminated on May 27th 2020, but Bilash’s lawyer was not informed until February 2nd 2021.