Serikzhan Bilash boarded a plane to Istanbul in September and bade farewell to Kazakhstan, his nearly 20-year-old homeland, preparing for an uncertain life in Turkey.
Mr Bilash, an activist born in China, said he was forced to flee the Central Asian country after a campaign of intimidation and harassment stemming from his work on the plight of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in western China. Xinjiang Province.
“I think my activities will save many people in China,” Bilash, 46, told the Financial Times in an interview in Istanbul. “But I cannot stay in my nation. It’s a tragedy.
The rulers of oil-rich Kazakhstan have forged increasingly close ties with Beijing over the past 15 years, with billions of dollars in Chinese investments in oil and gas, mining and other sectors . Bilash believes that China wields enormous influence over Kazakh politics and views Chinese pressure as the reason he has faced repeated warnings from the security services and multiple arrests in recent years. “The Kazakh government is so closely linked with Beijing,” he said.
The former businessman, of Kazakh origin, was born in Xinjiang but has moved Kazakhstan in 2000 in response to increasing pressure on minorities in the country.
He began working as an activist – a role that rose to prominence from 2014 as he gathered information about the repression of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang.
He gathered information from the large number of people from the region who traveled to Kazakhstan to visit friends and relatives. They spoke of unexplained arrests and the “re-education” camps used to incarcerate and indoctrinate over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim people.
He and his colleagues from his campaign group Atajurt Eriktileri (Homeland Volunteers) posted their testimonies online and worked with international media and human rights groups to draw attention to the abuses committed by Beijing.
“What they did in the beginning, in particular, was unprecedented,” said Gene Bunin, founder of Xinjiang Victims Database, a campaign group that worked alongside Atajurt. “Their work has enabled thousands of people – many of them ex-detainees – to leave Xinjiang and come to Kazakhstan. This has not happened anywhere else. “
Mr Bilash said the crackdown began in 2017 when he was visited by Kazakh national security agents who told him to stop using the words ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe the crackdown. in Xinjiang. “They said it would damage the friendship between the countries,” he said.
He has been arrested several times and fined for running an unregistered organization, despite multiple failed attempts to register Atajurt. Last year, he was under house arrest and charged with “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class or religious hatred” – a charge which human rights group Amnesty International called ” false ”.
He signed a plea deal that saved him a seven-year prison sentence in exchange for a promise to end his activism – a move he said he made after pressure from a senior adviser to the president from Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh government did not respond to a request for comment.
Yet Mr Bilash said the bullying continued. He made the decision to leave with his family and bought one-way tickets to Istanbul. Although he armed himself for the problems at the airport, he was able to leave the country without a problem. “It was very surprising,” he said. “Maybe they were very happy that the problem maker left Kazakhstan.”
Sean Roberts, an anthropologist at George Washington University who has conducted fieldwork in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, said China’s crackdown has put Almaty in a difficult position, caught between the wishes of a major trading partner and a mixture of Kazakh nationalist and anti-Chinese sentiment at home. .
“As for the government of Kazakhstan, it would prefer this problem to go away,” he said.
Becoming an exile was painful for Mr. Bilash. He was unable to attend the funeral of his father who died last month.
His choice of Istanbul adds to the challenges facing turkey in its relations with China. Ankara has toned down its once-strong criticism of the treatment of Uyghurs, as it has courted Beijing’s investments. But those overtures are complicated by the fact that the country is home to tens of thousands of exiles from Xinjiang, with their ranks now swollen by a high-level activist.
Mr Bilash said he did not feel safe in Turkey, pointing to the shooting of a Uyghur man in Istanbul last month. “Turkey is now very connected with Beijing, so I’m afraid.”
But he vowed to continue his work. “If I stop, no one can save the 3 million Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang, he said. “Our team is the last hope.”