Serikzhan Bilash boarded a plane to Istanbul in September and bid goodbye to Kazakhstan, his home of almost 20 years, bracing himself for an uncertain life in Turkey.
Mr Bilash, a China-born activist, 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 Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s western Xinjiang province.
“I believe my activities will save many people in China,” Mr Bilash, 46, told the Financial Times in an interview in Istanbul. “But I can’t stay in my nation. It’s a tragedy.”
The leadership of oil-rich Kazakhstan has forged increasingly close ties with Beijing over the past 15 years, with billions of dollars of Chinese investments in oil and gas, mining and other sectors. Mr Bilash believes that China exerts huge influence on Kazakh politics and sees Chinese pressure as the reason why he faced repeated warnings from the security services and multiple arrests in recent years. “The Kazakh government is so closely tied to Beijing,” he said.
The former businessman, an ethnic Kazakh, was born in Xinjiang but moved to Kazakhstan in 2000 in response to growing pressure on minorities in the country.
He began working as an activist — a role that grew in importance from 2014 as he collated reports about a crackdown on Uighur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang.
He gathered information from the large numbers of people from the region who travelled to Kazakhstan to visit friends and relatives. They would talk of unexplained arrests and the “re-education” camps used to incarcerate and indoctrinate more than 1m Uighurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim people.
He and his colleagues at his campaign group Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) published their testimonies online and worked with international media and human rights groups to draw attention to abuses by Beijing.
“What they did in the early stages in particular was quite unprecedented,” said Gene Bunin, founder of Xinjiang Victims Database, a campaign group that has worked alongside Atajurt. “Their work has led to thousands of people — many of them ex-detainees — being allowed to leave Xinjiang and come to Kazakhstan. This has not happened anywhere else.”
Mr Bilash said the pushback 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 was arrested multiple times and was fined for running an unregistered organisation, despite multiple unsuccessful attempts to register Atajurt. Last year he was placed under house arrest and charged with “incitement of social, national, clan, race, class or religious hatred” — an accusation that human rights group Amnesty International described as “bogus”.
He signed a plea bargain that spared him a seven-year jail sentence in return for a promise to put an end to his activism — a decision he said he made after pressure from a senior adviser to Kazakhstan’s president.
The Kazakh government did not respond to a request for comment.
Yet Mr Bilash said the intimidation continued. He made the decision to leave with his family and bought one-way tickets to Istanbul. Although he steeled himself for problems at the airport, he was able to exit the country without problems. “It was very surprising,” he said. “Maybe they were very happy that the troublemaking problem-maker was leaving Kazakhstan.”
Sean Roberts, a George Washington University anthropologist who has conducted fieldwork in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, said China’s crackdown has put Nur-Sultan in a difficult position, caught between the wishes of a big trading partner and a blend of Kazakh nationalist and anti-China sentiment at home.
“As far as the government in Kazakhstan is concerned, they would prefer if this problem just went away,” he said.
Becoming an exile has been 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 relationship with China. Ankara has toned down its once strong criticism of the treatment of Uighurs as it has courted investment from Beijing. 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 swelled by a high-profile campaigner.
Mr Bilash said he does not feel safe in Turkey, pointing to the shooting of a Uighur man in Istanbul last month. “Turkey is now very tied to Beijing so I’m afraid.”
But he has vowed to continue his work. “If I stop, nobody can save the 3m Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang, he said. “Our team is the last hope.”