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Critic of China’s Detention Camps Is Free, but Silence May Be the Price

HONG KONG — An activist who drew attention to the plight of Muslims held in Chinese indoctrination camps has been freed after months of detention in Kazakhstan, but his lawyer refused to sign his plea deal, saying she believed he had been threatened into accepting it.

The activist, Serikzhan Bilash, walked out of a courtroom late Friday in Almaty, Kazakhstan, surrounded by dozens of cheering supporters. He did not respond to messages seeking comment on Saturday. But the news agency Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying that under the terms of his plea agreement, he would have to stop his activism.

“It was that or seven years in jail,” he was quoted as saying. “I had no choice.”

Mr. Bilash, a naturalized Kazakh citizen who was born in China, had been a prominent advocate for people being held in a vast network of camps in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China. The Chinese authorities initially denied that the camps existed, but they now describe them as job and legal skills training programs meant to steer people away from extremism.

Scholars estimate that as many as one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and members of other predominately Muslim ethnic groups are being held in the camps, where former detainees have said that they were subjected to indoctrination programs meant to replace Islamic piety with devotion to the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese government recently said that it had released many of the detainees, but New York Times reporters who recently visited the region found it blanketed with secrecy, and the camps were continuing to operate.

Mr. Bilash and the group he leads, Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, compiled testimony of former camp inmates and the family members of people still being held in order to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to release them.

The videos — recorded in Kazakh, with many translated into Russian, Chinese and English — are some of the most powerful and direct evidence of the camps and the suffering caused by the widespread detentions.

In March, the police in Kazakhstan detained Mr. Bilash and took him to the capital, Nur-Sultan, where he was placed under house arrest. He pleaded guilty on Friday to a charge of inciting ethnic discord.

His lawyer, Aiman Umarova, said Saturday that she had refused to sign Mr. Bilash’s plea deal and that it had been arranged without her knowledge. Ms. Umarova said she believed Mr. Bilash had been threatened into accepting it.

“My position was no plea bargain, because he was innocent,” Ms. Umarova said by telephone. “But he wanted to be free, and I understand to him to be free is most important. It is his choice, it is not my choice.”

Mr. Bilash’s calls to wage an information campaign against the Chinese authorities had posed a dilemma for the Kazakh government, which worked quietly to help its citizens get out of China while also avoiding criticism of its more powerful neighbor.

Before his detention, Mr. Bilash said he believed the Chinese government was applying pressure to silence critics of the detention camps and prevent the outside world from knowing what was happening there.

“They just want to close Atajurt,” he said in February. “They just want to close Serikzhan’s mouth and they just wanted so nobody would stand up against Chinese re-education camps.”


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