At her trial, Sauytbay called the camp “a prison in the mountains” that held 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs. Guards monitored the malnourished detainees’ every movement, she said. “People didn’t dare to speak even a single word out loud,” she told The Globe and Mail. “Everyone was silent, endlessly mute, because we were all afraid of accidentally saying something wrong.” Atajurt invited international media to cover the trial, as it was the first time a teacher in the camps had escaped China.
Despite fears that the Kazakh government would extradite Sauytbay, last August the judge allowed her to stay in Kazakhstan. The next day, Chinese authorities retaliated by detaining her sister and two of her friends. A few days later, Sauytbay’s own lawyer barred her from speaking out, claiming that she was still in danger of being deported since she had not yet received asylum. Atajurt strongly objected, noting that the lawyer was silencing the only person with knowledge of the inner workings of the camps. Yet today Sauytbay still does not feel safe speaking about her experience as Kazakhstan has repeatedly denied her asylum.
Gene Bunin, a Russian-American researcher who is compiling the Xinjiang Victims Database, believes the Kazakh government may deal with Bilash the same way it dealt with Sauytbay: Bilash has a lot of support among the Chinese-born repatriated Kazakhs he has helped, as well as among international media, so the government likely won’t convict him. But at the same time, it couldn’t let him continue his work due to pressure from China. Bunin believes the government may try to silence him by prolonging the investigation process so that he can’t continue his activism.
In February, an Almaty court declared Bilash guilty of illegally leading an unregistered organization and ordered him to pay a fine of $670. Bilash argued that Atajurt was not a formal organization but a group of people concerned about Kazakhs in Xinjiang. He also said that he had tried to register twice last year, but the Justice Ministry had not cooperated.
Prosecutors plan to focus on a comment that Bilash, who is Muslim, made in February calling for “jihad” against the Chinese. Supporters say the comment was taken out of context and that he was referring not to violence but to spreading information about China’s actions. Bunin believes the Kazakh government doesn’t have a legitimate case against him: “Atajurt never positioned itself against the government, they’ve done things properly,” Bunin said. “They don’t criticize the [Kazakh] government, they only petitioned them to do something [about the detainees] … so it’s hard to prove he was a dissident in any way.”
Since Bilash’s arrest, volunteers at Atajurt have posted online hundreds of videos of Kazakh citizens calling for the activist’s release. With the office reopened, Atajurt volunteers are back at work documenting the stories of the detained, helping family members write complaints to the Kazakh government and international agencies, and connecting them with foreign reporters.
“We will carry out our historical mission and we will continue to work until the human rights of those who are oppressed in Xinjiang are guaranteed,” the group said in a statement.
Striking the professor:
The prestigious Tsinghua University has suspended law professor Xu Zhangrun and placed him under investigation for writing a series of essays criticizing repression under President Xi Jinping.