Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent activist who has campaigned for the release of ethnic Kazakhs in China, poses for a photograph, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, August 17, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

When Serikzhan Bilash, a well-known rights activist in Kazakhstan, was freed from jail after a hearing late on August 16, 2019, he was very clear about the terms of his release: Cease all activism against China.

“It was that or seven years in jail. I had no choice,” said Bilash, who has exposed human rights violations against Turkic Muslim minorities, including ethnic Kazakhs in China’s Xinjiang region.

The harsh terms imposed by the Almaty court show how willing Kazakhstan is to repress the rights of courageous activists like Bilash. Under the conditions of his release he had to concede guilt to bogus incitement charges, give up peaceful activism, pay a $300 fine, and cannot leave Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, for three months.

The fact that Kazakhstan, under its new president Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, is forcing an internationally respected activist to limit his own freedom of expression, speaks volumes of the authorities’ disrespect for justice and rule of law. It also demonstrates Kazakhstan’s readiness to sacrifice human rights to maintain good relations with its neighbour, China.

Bilash’s own lawyer Aiman Umarova refused to sign the plea bargain, insisting on her client’s innocence. “I refuse to put my name to any deal that was signed under pressure,” she said.

Bilash’s experiences before and after his arrest in March also cast light on Kazakhstan’s approach. After authorities refused to register Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, Bilash’s campaign group on Xinjiang, in February, they fined him almost $700 for acting in the name of an unregistered group. He was later placed under house arrest for more than five months in the capital Nur-Sultan, far from his family in Almaty. And at his trial last Friday his lawyer was initially denied access to him during the hearing.

It’s good news that Bilash is free and can rejoin his family. But it’s tragic that if he again tries to speak up for those facing abuses in ‘political re-education’ camps in Xinjiang, he would be jailed. The conditions on his release should be dropped immediately. And Kazakhstan should think beyond its ties with China to its obligations to respect and comply with international human rights law.