March 10, 2019 / 3:51 PM / 2 months ago

Kazakh China rights advocate detained on hate speech charges - activists

ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakh police have detained a Chinese-born activist who has campaigned on behalf of ethnic Kazakhs in China, fellow activists said on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO: Kazakh rights activist Serikzhan Bilash walks outside a courthouse in Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mariya Gordeyeva

Serikzhan Bilash, a naturalised Kazakh citizen who was born in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, is a de facto leader and public face of Atajurt, a group that has worked for the release of ethnic Kazakhs from “re-education” camps where activists say more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims are held.

A fiery orator fluent in Kazakh, Chinese and English, Bilash has become a prominent figure on the Kazakh political scene.

Atajurt said security forces had broken into Bilash’s hotel room in Almaty in the early hours of Sunday, detained him and quickly flown him to Astana, the capital of the former Soviet republic.

Bilash’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova, posted a video on Sunday saying she had just arrived in Astana and was going to visit him at the police department where he was being held.

Astana’s police department had no immediate comment.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he had noted the reports about Bilash, and said he had illegally entered Kazakhstan in 2018.

“According to what is understood he may have some debt problems in China,” Lu said.

“This kind of person has ulterior motives to make things up. I think the aims behind this need no explanation,” he added, without elaborating.

The government of the Central Asian nation has avoided criticising China’s Xinjiang policies, but negotiated the release of some two dozen people with dual Kazakh and Chinese citizenships detained in China.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Tamara Vaal in Astana, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Richard Borsuk

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