‘My Life was in Danger All the Time’ - An Exclusive Interview with Serikzhan Bilash of the Atajurt Human Rights Group
First Published 13/01/2020
Facebook may be slow to deal with QAnon conspiracy theorists and their enablers, but if you run a human rights group, well, that’s a different matter. In the wake of the Facebook account of the Kazakhstani human rights organisation Atajurt Volunteers which campaigns of behalf of those persecuted in Xinjiang being ‘permanently closed,’ I spoke exclusively with its founder. Serikzhan Bilash, who 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 that he was targeted for ‘exercising his rights to freedom of expression and association’ – now resides in Turkey. In November 2020, he was unable to attend his father’s funeral in Kazakhstan for fear of being arrested.
‘I’ve recently been through a lot of unpredictable changes and difficulties,’ Bilash told me. ‘I miss my friends and relatives back in Kazakhstan; I used to meet hundreds of people every day, so now I feel very alone. Life in Turkey is good, though. Turkey has been very friendly to me so far, but I don't know what the future holds. When I was in Kazakhstan, my life was in danger all the time, and the security services were always following me. So many Chinese organisations and Kazakhs who are close to Beijing followed me everywhere, even at three AM in the morning if I went to the supermarket near my house.
‘I am in good health now, though. In the future, I will register the Atajurt human rights organisation in Turkey and continue to collect evidence about the re-education camps in Xinjiang. We will campaign on behalf of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz or Tatars, the nationality is not important, but as a Kazakh organisation, 95% of our work is focused on ethnic Kazakhs born in China. Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic group in Xinjiang.
‘I’m not in opposition to the Kazakh Government, and yet the authorities sentenced me to seven years and took away my right to be involved in political organisations. I think this happened because my profile was growing and more people were becoming aware of our work. My speeches on social media were the most-watched in Kazakhstan, so I think the government felt threatened. I’m not a politician, though. My only priority has been to save ethnic Kazakhs and other minorities in China.’