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The Inside Story of the Xinjiang Concentration Camps: China Aid’s Exclusive Interview with Serikzhan Bilash

Serikzhan Bilash in New York, November 2021 - credit: Kalbynur Auken
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Gao Zhensai | ChinaAid

Serikzhan Bilash, born in Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang, China, immigrated to Kazakhstan in 2000. He is a human rights activist in Kazakhstan, concerned about human rights in Xinjiang and Kazakh human rights.  

Mr. Serikzhan Bilash and others founded civil society group Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, a long-term partner of ChinaAid. The organization works to collect, verify and disseminate the facts of what happens in Xinjiang. In 2017, the group and ChinaAid worked together to be the first to reveal the appalling news of the Xinjiang detention camps (concentration camps), causing worldwide shock and grave concern from Western countries. At present, Western states, including the United States, have determined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government’s Xinjiang policy as “genocide” and have formulated relevant laws, sanctions, and assistance. 

On March 10, 2019, more than 10 Kazakh National Security personnel and police officers arrested Mr. Serikzhan Bilash at the Rahat Palace Hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He was arrested on suspicion of violating Article 174(1) of the Kazakh Criminal Code for “incitement to social, national, generic, racial, class or religious discord.” Bilash’s wife, Leila Adilzhan, witnessed the entire arrest process. Bilash’s wife is worried that her husband will be sent to China. The embassies of many Western countries in Kazakhstan closely monitor Bilash’s case status.  

After five months under house arrest, on August 16, Serikzhan was released after being fined around 300 U.S. dollars by a court. Serikzhan and prosecutors then reached an agreement, which included the conditions that he was not to criticize the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang publicly and not participate in political activities. On December 9, 2020, Serikzhan was forced to leave his home in Kazakhstan, where he had lived for nearly 20 years, and moved to Istanbul, Turkey. He settled in the United States in January 2021. His wife, Leila, and their children are currently taking refuge in the Netherlands after leaving Turkey.  

 The following is part I of a series of interviews with Mr. Serikzhan Bilash with ChinaAidSpecial Correspondent Gao Zhensai: 

Mr. Bilash, it is a pleasure to conduct an interview with you. You have collected a large number of witness testimonies and videos about the Xinjiang internment camps, and I would like to let the readers of ChinaAidlearn about it further. Since you have the ability to do many meaningful things in Kazakhstan, why did you finally choose to come to the United States? 

Serikzhan Bilash: Actually, I left the country of Kazakhstan in September 2020; at that time, the government authorities did not let me stay. The Kazakh security department had told me at that point, “We can’t arrest you, and you can’t be sentenced; we are pressured by the West.” 

In 2019, the Kazakh government arrested me on the basis of “incitement to social, national, generic, racial, class or religious discord” under Article 174(1) of the Kazakh Criminal Code. This is a heavy sentence; if found guilty, (I will be) sentenced to seven to ten years. But they were under pressure from the West, and the government had no choice but to release me. They sentenced me to serve seven years in prison on suspicion of “inciting social discord,” and they prohibited me from leading any political group for seven years which meant depriving me of my political rights.  

Until December 31, 2019, I lived under the supervision of the Kazakh National Police. They reported my whereabouts to the police every week; the government also confiscated all my property, including real estate, and froze my bank account. 

In 2020, the government of Kazakhstan charged me with two more criminal charges and two investigations. The first crime is also the “incitement of social discord” under article 174 of the National Criminal Code of Kazakhstan, and another was “illegal appropriation of property.”  

 Why did they charge you with “illegal appropriation of property?”  

Serikzhan Bilash: This is because a puppet human rights organization, a pro-government organization, sued me for possessing one of their YouTube accounts, in fact, the founder of that organization was initially a member of our organization, but the Kazakh National Security Service bribed him, and he sued me.  

In court, I questioned the man and said, “How did you join in at that time? At that time, your mother was detained in an education camp in Xinjiang, you were the one who applied to us for help, and you joined our human rights organization as a volunteer. Now that you have registered a human rights organization, you say that our channel belongs to you and sue me for “illegal appropriation.” What a funny thing, when you weren’t around, this YouTube channel had already existed in 2013!  

What kind of charge is “inciting social discord?”  

Serikzhan Bilash: The United Nations human rights Council, does not welcome the crime of inciting social discord in Article 174 of the Kazakh government. This article has always been criticized by the United Nations human rights council and human rights organizations around the world. Kazakhstan uses this charge to arrest dissidents; the sentence is usually as long as seven to ten years. If reporters write articles criticizing or exposing the authorities of doing something wrong, they will be arrested in the name of this charge and arrest those dissidents. What is the crime of creating social discord, and where did the social discord come from? It’s all made out of thin air.  

What was the outcome of this legal dispute and how did it affect you? 

Serikzhan Bilash: Later, the crime of “illegal appropriation of property” could not be established, nor could the crime of “inciting social discord” be established. 

The Kazakh National Security Agency was very angry, they said, “We forbid you to lead, but we cannot prevent it.” I said, “I did not lead; I am a volunteer, an ordinary translator. I announced to human rights groups on January 1, 2020, that I am not leading. Since I’m banned from leading (deprived of political rights), I do not take on leadership and work in the organization as a volunteer. I work as a translator, I work as a cleaner, mop floors, and I work as a driver, driving for the human rights organization.” 

I mocked their authorities just like that, but I did indeed work there. 

Later, a large number of people provided us with actual facts and information about the concentration camps in Xinjiang, and the government of Kazakhstan was outraged. Because they are under pressure from China and pressure from the West, if they arrest me, the West will not be happy. If they don’t, China will not be happy.  

Why do they need to take into consideration pressure from the West if they want to arrest you? 

Serikzhan Bilash: This is because the Kazakh government officials all have huge assets, including real estate funds, all hidden in the West, such as the United States and European countries. They do not want to be pressured by the West. 

 Did they take a more aggressive approach to you? 

Serikzhan Bilash: The authorities couldn’t do anything, so they threatened me and said, “Why don’t we have a car accident. A big truck runs over a small car, you end up dying, and that leaves your wife and three little kids behind; how do you feel?”  

The National Security Agency then said again, “How about having a truck crush your entire family and you are the only one left behind, how would you feel about that?” Meaning, they would create a manufactured car accident to intimidate me. At that time, after our organization’s meeting, they said to me, “Serikzhan, you cannot stay in this place at all anymore.”  

What other clearer sign of threatening action made you finally make up your mind to leave Kazakhstan? 

Serikzhan Bilash: The other reason for leaving Kazakhstan is that something appalling happened in the winter of 2020. One of my good friends and a faithful supporter of mine, Mr. Dulat Agadil, was a native Kazakh, born and raised; he was an activist and a fellow dissident.  

He was arrested at the end of January 2020. On the day of his arrest, he passed away at the detention center, and he was only forty-three years old. His body was covered with wounds, and his entire body was bruised. The lab results did not come out yet; the government went ahead and reported that he had passed away from a heart attack. His family testified that he did not have any heart diseases. After a few months, his oldest son Zhanbolat Agadil was stabbed on the street and passed away as well.  

When I was in prison, every time I had a trial, he would wear a T-shirt with a portrait of me; this was something my supporters would do, and there’s even a suggestion written on the shirt: Nominate Mr. Serikzhan for the Nobel Peace Prize, and also wrote that I was the first person to expose the Xinjiang re-education camp (concentration camp). He was my loyal supporter; he always wore this T-shirt no matter what activities he participated in; this was the kind of person he was. He was killed, and even his son could not escape and was killed too.  

 Is there any direct evidence to verify that he was murdered?  

Serikzhan Bilash: There is an activist, Baiebolat Kunbolat, who protested my arrest at the Chinese consulate in Almaty, and his family was harassed by police. The police lied about receiving a report that his child was noisy and disturbing the neighbors. Before Baiebolat’s anti-China protests, they did not receive complaints or encounter such problems. 

After that incident, Baiebolat was threatened by a person from the Kazakh national security agency. That person threatened him and said if he does not stop protesting, he will “die in prison-like Dulat Agadil did.”  

If that statement is true, then it verified that the reason Dulat Agadil passed away on February 25, 2020, was not due to “natural causes.” The police claimed that Dulat had a heart attack not long after he was arrested and that it might be because he got drunk. But his friend insisted that Dulat did not drink excessively and did not have any heart diseases.  

This was appealing news. I also noticed that it was snowing heavily on the day of his burial. On a day when snow covered the ground, thousands of people attended his funeral. The crowd’s emotions ran high, and they held him up while he was covered with the Kazakh flag. He must have been a remarkable person.  

Serikzhan Bilash: On the tombstone of Mr. Dulat Agadil, these words are inscribed: “For me, the only mother, the only father, is the motherland. Get ready to be ignited for your country! Kazakhstan will not allow the expansion of the Chinese Communist Party!” 

Special Correspondent: He is a Kazakh patriot, and it is a pity that the regime in that country cannot accommodate him. I hope this is the last tragic story and something like this will never happen again in that land.  

Serikzhan Bilash: There was another incident that made me choose to leave Kazakhstan. That is because of a very good friend of mine, and I called him Big Brother. He was very knowledgeable. He was someone who taught others, a university professor, and was also a journalist and author.  

He has a book devoted to Xinjiang. He is the first person in the world to write about “Xinjiang Re-education Concentration Camps.” The content of what he wrote was based on the witnesses I provided about Xinjiang’s re-education concentration camps; it was according to real-life persons, stories, and videos, some were already made publicly available, some were not yet. The book he wrote was published in Kazakhstan, the book was distributed, and our organization also participated. 

His name was Kuandyk Shamalhay, and he was someone I looked up to and a knowledgeable person. In 2019, I was arrested by the Kazakh government. When my trial started, he would come and support me every time. He publicly said in court that “You will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of your political activities. I wrote about you and a book about your fight and activism, and I will also be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”  

The topic he talked about circulated quickly; it was typical and became one of the hot trending topics on social media in Kazakhstan. He supported me through this method. He was indeed the first in the world to write the first book about the Xinjiang Reeducation Centration Camp; it is a literary novel.  

On the night he passed away, he actually called me, and we chatted for a long time. I promised that I would find a professional translator to translate his work into English and publish it in the West to make it more influential.  

Then, he was in the hospital that night and was found to be infected with the “novel coronavirus.” (COVID-19) He received treatment at the largest hospital in the national capital of Kazakhstan, a hospital dedicated to the treatment of novel coronavirus. At 4 o’clock in the morning, a “doctor” suddenly came for no reason and gave him a suspicious drug. He didn’t think much about it at that time. It was given by the “doctor” anyway, so he ate it. He then later realized that no one else in the same ward ate any medicine; he was the only one who did. He then said to the doctor, “Why didn’t anyone else eat this?” And the doctor replied, “It’s just for you,” and he didn’t say anything else.  

But he wrote about his suspicions on Facebook; this was his last post. He wrote about why the “doctor” only gave him medicine. No one in the same ward took medicine. He was the only one who took medicine. He also wrote, “Why it was only aimed at me felt very strange, and why the ‘doctor’ waited for me to finish taking medicine and drinking water, and kept watching me before leaving, I thought it was strange.”  

Around 6 to 7 in the morning, his wife was notified of his death. Because the resuscitation failed due to COVID-19, the authorities did not conduct autopsy examinations but put his body in a plastic bag and buried him directly. At that time, all the cities were closed because of COVID, and his body was not shown to the family. According to the customs of Kazakhs, the dead body should be washed three times and then buried when it is clean; but he did not have that, and the family did not see it either, and he was wrapped in a thick plastic bag and directly buried because it was a state regulation.  

 Two of my most capable friends and supporters were assassinated inexplicably. So my supporters said to me, “Serikzhan, you are in danger in Kazakhstan; the next one is you. If they claim you have COVID, or find out that you have COVID, they will arrest you, put you in the hospital, kill you inexplicably. In the name of COVID, they can easily succeed. We will also have no way of finding out the truth. Because according to the regulations of the state at the time, the family members were not allowed to see the dead. Now because they can’t arrest you, they can’t sentence you, they can’t stop your work, they can only use COVID as a reason for death, which is easy for them. At that time, there were many people who passed away from COVID. You should leave quickly!” 

This is tragic news, and I believe that your decisive choice to leave Kazakhstan was a responsible and correct choice. But you were charged with the crime of “inciting social discord” and did your sentence outside of the prison. At that time, were there any border patrols?  

Serikzhan Bilash: At that time, the people in the Kazakh government said, “Hurry up and leave; we will help you solve the customs problem. It is not good for you to be here.” There were some who were pro-government, they pretended to be activists, patriots, activists, but they were actually government puppets. We all knew them; they were pretending and deliberately said “you should leave quickly.” They wanted me to leave, but I refused to do so at first because I wanted to stay there and continue the work of collecting witness accounts. This is the key to verifying the issue of the Xinjiang concentration camps. 

According to Kazakhstan law, I was deprived of leaving the country. Article 174 of the Kazakhstan Criminal Code stipulates that I cannot leave the country. But at that time, we had a decisive meeting on September 7, and I immediately left Kazakhstan for Turkey on September 9, 2020. I chose Turkey because it is a visa-free country, and I could be exempted for three months. 

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