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The urgent need to introduce anti-SLAPP measures, proposed by the UK government in July, has been underscored by the recent announcement that a UK registered company and a Kazakhstan endowment fund have issued legal proceedings against a number of UK media outlets.
In January and February 2022, openDemocracy and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), amongst other outlets, published separate reports on the Nazarbayev Fund and Jusan Technologies Ltd. The Nazarbayev Fund is a Kazakhstan university and schools endowment fund, associated with the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Jusan Technologies Ltd is a UK registered company that controlled over $7.8bn in gross asset value. This included an online marketplace, a mobile phone operator, financial services and shopping centres. According to the reports, the Nazarbayev Fund owned a controlling stake in the company via an intermediary until late 2021, raising questions as to why a UK company held some of Kazakhstan’s wealth.
As a result of their public interest reporting, TBIJ and openDemocracy are among the media outlets who have been threatened with legal action by lawyers instructed by both the Nazarbayev Fund and Jusan Technologies Ltd. There should be no question that investigating and reporting on the financial interests of authoritarian leaders, both during their time in office and afterwards, and entities connected with them, is clearly in the public interest. For this to be met with threats of costly and time-consuming legal action constitutes a significant and severe threat to media freedom and the public’s right to know.
The undersigned organisations call for the legal action against openDemocracy and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism to be dropped and stand in solidarity with all outlets facing SLAPPs for their reporting. We also reiterate our calls to the UK Government to be both bold and swift with their proposals to bring forward anti-SLAPP legislation to ensure all public interest reporting is robustly protected against abusive lawsuits.
Index on Censorship
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Blueprint for Free Speech
Tax Policy Associates Ltd
Spotlight on Corruption
Justice for Journalists Foundation
Whistleblowing International Network
Public Interest News Foundation
Rory Peck Trust
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
National Union of Journalists
Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID)
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Transparency International UK
Society of Authors
It should surprise no-one that I am a political geek. I love politics. I love the cut and thrust of debate. I love the moments of high drama and the intrigue. Most of all I love the fact that genuine good can be done. That people’s lives can be made just a little easier by the power of our collective democracy.
So you’d assume that I would have relished the events of the UK Parliament this week. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being completely obsessed with the minutiae of the debate around Partygate and the drama of the precarious position of the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP as he seeks to survive the biggest political crisis of his premiership.
But I’m also angry. The British Government has been distracted for weeks, caught in a political crisis of their own making about whether or not the Prime Minister knowingly broke his own Covid-19 regulations. While the political establishment awaits a report from a senior civil servant to clarify what was, or wasn’t, happening behind the doors of Number 10, important issues are being sidelined or ignored and people are suffering.
This week the British Parliament held vital debates on the genocide of the Uighurs and the use of the British legal system to silence activists and journalists. Both debates passed broadly without comment or wider notice.
The Russian Federation is threatening the sovereign status of a democratic ally, Ukraine, on an hourly basis.
Biden has marked his first year in office.
52,581 people have died of Covid.
Protestors in Kazakhstan are being threatened with death if they continue to protest against the government, with 10,000 already arrested and 225 killed by the authorities.
23 million people in Afghanistan are experiencing extreme hunger as the Taliban starts attacking women activists.
These are some of the heartbreaking and terrifying realities which are happening around the world. These are the issues that should have dominated our news agenda this week, along with a cost of living crisis, a plan to deliver net zero and attacks on free expression around the world.
Index will continue to fight for these issues to be heard. For the voices of the persecuted to be recognised. While some of our leaders focus on domestic intrigue we’ll keep fighting for those that don’t have a voice.
First he fled Xinjiang. Then Kazakhstan. And then Turkey. On 20 January 2021 Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent human rights defender and activist, travelled alone to the United States to seek asylum. He left behind his wife, Laila Adilzahn, and three sons. On 9 January 2022, his family travelled to the Netherlands to seek asylum. But even there troubles have continued to plague them.
Since the Ürümqi protests of 2009, violent and oppressive PRC policies towards the region’s minorities have intensified to what today amounts to genocide. As a native Kazakh in the region, Bilash founded Atajurt Human Rights in 2017. Together with his wife, who is also a native Kazakh born in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, they have recorded, translated and published online thousands of video testimonies of the abuses. Bilash told Index:
“I created the video testimony model because ethnic Kazakhs who lost loved ones in Xinjiang were coming to me to tell their story.”
Many Kazakh families are separated due to some members having fled the region using dual passports [Chinese and Kazakhs]. His organisation has called on the Chinese government to release interned family members, support their relatives in Kazakhstan and empower the voices of survivors.
“Too many awful stories there. We were translating these facts into English for international journalists. So it was big, big work,” Adilzahn said.
This work has not been without risks. On 10 March 2019, Bilash was arrested by the Kazakhstan authorities. He was charged with article 174 of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan for “inciting ethnic hatred”. The UN Special Rapporteur, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, has stated article 174 has been used unduly and increasingly to target outspoken civil society leaders to obstruct their work [paragraph 15]. Bilash told Index:
“I never criticised the Kazakhstan government when beginning this work because I knew if I criticised, it would be very dangerous to continue. So collecting the facts about the concentration camps and sending it to the media was the only way to save my people.”
He told survivors the Kazakh government would support them, but instead “because of Chinese pressure, the Kazakhstan government arrested me.”
“Please Save My Husband”, Adilzahn wrote to the international community via her Bitter Winter blog.
Bilash spent six months in prison and under house arrest, before coming to a procedural agreement allowing for his release. The conditions were that he had to plead guilty and promise to refrain from leading a political organisation for the next seven years.
Throughout 2020 Kazakhstan’s human rights situation was worsening.
“When he was released we thought we could stay there in Kazakhstan, and that they couldn’t arrest us, or do something with us. But we were mistaken. They started sending papers and opening new cases against us again. There was no chance to stay,” said Adilzahn.
Bilash said he was harassed by people connected to the government. According to Bilash, it began with carrots: promises of a state fund to manage and the opportunity to “live happily ever after”. He refused, knowing his silence could not be bought. So the sticks were brought out: Bilash received death threats from Kazakh authorities: “What if a truck crashes into your car and kills you, leaving your children crying behind you.” With Dulat Agadil, a close supporter, having already died in custody and his son stabbed shortly after, it was time to leave. On 10 September 2020, they left for Turkey.
Their situation was desperate. Adilzahn told Index: “We obtained a year tourist visa. But we had nothing. We never planned to leave Kazakhstan, or get refugee status from somewhere.” Bilash said Kazahk authorities labelled him a terrorist and froze his bank accounts. When in Turkey, Bilash alleges individuals approaching him monitored his activities on behalf of the Kazakhstan state. Their feelings of insecurity were exacerbated by notable reports of Uyghurs being watched, killed and deported via third countries.
In Turkey, he felt there was no way to continue the work of Atajurt Human Rights. Adilzahn told him, “You have to go, you are the only one who can rescue your nation. If you are deported back to China, your life and nation will be lost. There will be no chance for freedom.” So on 20 January 2021, Bilash left Turkey to seek asylum in the USA. His family remained in Turkey as they didn’t have the documentation needed. Since February 2021, China Aid has been hosting and helping him with the process.
Adilzahn told Index that they “thought he had a politically motivated full case [for asylum], and that we could reunite in America very fast.” But she speculated the pandemic, a Presidential election and issues with illegal immigrants in the USA slowed down Bilash’s asylum and their reunification. This endangered the family.
“A big footprint was left on the patio outside their apartment where Adilzahn lived. And there were reports of Kazakh government security officers searching the Kazakh ex-pat community in Turkey by showing Mr. Bilash’s photo and asking where they could find his family,” Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, told Index.
Then, in December 2021 Duken Masimkhanuli, president of a pro-Chinese organisation in Kazakhstan, texted Bilash threatening “I will kill you and your three sons.” He was also insulted and threatened by Bakhtiyar Toktaubay, a resident of the Almaty region in Kazakhstan. He sent a video saying “Serikzhan, you left your wife in Turkey and fled to the United States. If you don’t like her, we need her. If she wants me, if I like her, I will spend a night with your wife, I will sleep in your house.”
“By founding Atajurt Human Rights, we have rescued thousands from Xinjiang re-education camps. We fight at one time on two front lines. The first front line is the Chinese Communist Party, and the second is Kazakhstan National Security. I saved so many from re-education camps, but could not save my own family. The American government gave no official support,” Bilash said.
On 5 January 2022, as protesters filled the streets of Kazakhstan, authorities declared a state of emergency. Police fired on protesters. Bilash criticised the “high level [governmental] revenge and mass arrests”. With Kazakh President Tokayev threatening punishment to all involved, and with Bilash’s family still within reach, Adilzahn told Index that it was “too dangerous” to stay in Turkey.
She added: “It seemed my people were winning until the Kazakh authority invited the Russian army in. They were killing people indiscriminately. Too many innocent people dying. Now my people are queuing for the morgues, and my birth city Almaty has been destroyed.” China Aid has since published an article titled “The Xinjiang Model repeated in Kazakhstan”.
Knowing the family had to act quickly Fu developed a plan.
“They decided to send someone to help me, as I am alone. I have three little children, three boys [1, 4 and 6 years old] and luggage. I couldn’t have gone by myself,” Adilzahn told Index. This is when Michael Horowitz, former OMB General Counsel to the Reagan Administration, and his wife Dr Devra Marcus agreed to accompany the family. They have housed many CCP-persecuted individuals, including Bilash.
On 9 January the six travellers boarded a flight from Istanbul with a layover in the Netherlands, where they are currently being processed as priority asylum seekers.
Despite securing the family’s safety, Horowitz and Marcus were arrested on arriving at Schiphol airport. The Royal Netherlands Marechaussee spokesperson, Mike Hofman told Index, “On Sunday 9 January 2022, we arrested two American citizens for human trafficking. It’s suspected that they accompanied and assisted a family from Kazakhstan from Turkey to the Netherlands to apply for asylum.” He continued, “The American citizens were released from custody on Tuesday, but remain suspects.” On 12 January 2022, they arrived back in the USA.
“Last year alone China Aid rescued 17 endangered people, with six being brought to the Netherlands. We have never had this problem,” said Fu.
“The accusations against Mike and Devra are bizarre and absurd.”
The US Embassy Consular Affair Chief relayed the words of Horowitz and Marcus whilst detained: “It’s one of the great honors of my wife and mine that we have been able to play a role in helping to rescue two human rights heroes […] ”We are not traffickers.”
Michael Polak, Director and Barrister of Justice Abroad, told Index: “It is clear that Serikzhan Bilash and his family have faced intense danger and persecution because of his brave stance speaking up for ethnic Kazakhs stuck in Chinese camps whilst the Kazakh government stayed silent. It is clear that the Bilash family qualify as refugees, and it is great that they are in the Netherlands where they are safe. The arrest of the American nationals is oppressive and disproportionate, and it is hoped that they will not be charged given all the circumstances.”
Today Bilash and his family are now far away from Kazakhstan and indeed China. But they do not feel completely safe. As he tells Index: “Pro-Beijing forces are indeed rampant, everywhere, and are very powerful.”
Life is returning to normal in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and commercial capital, after the unprecedented violence that followed peaceful protests earlier in January but questions remain over the actions authorities will take about civil society activists and journalists who publicised the protests.
Peaceful protests against rising prices started in the western oil town of Zhanaozen on 2 January and spread nationwide after the government’s refusal to cut the prices of liquefied petroleum gas back to the previous level. Back in December 2011, Zhanaozen had been the scene of violent clashes between striking oil workers and security forces that left at least 16 people dead.
The protesters began putting forward demands that the government should resign when the protests spread to Almaty on the evening of 4 January with protests on the city’s main square.
Access to the independent news site Orda.kz and the KazTAG news agency were almost immediately blocked in a heavy-handed response from Kazakh authorities.
Before they were blocked, Orda.kz and other independent outlets and blogs were the only sources of reliable information during the crisis. Despite the blockage of their website, its editor-in-chief Gulnar Bazhkenova said they had worked hard to keep their Telegram channel running.
“When the internet blackout was imposed, we looked for spots where the internet still worked and we would rush there to post our content wherever possible both on the website and Telegram channel,” she said. “We also shared logins and passwords with our colleagues abroad so they could post material which we passed on to them by all means available.”
Unlike in other towns and cities in Kazakhstan, the security services began to use force and the peaceful protests turned violent. Authorities later dubbed groups who hijacked these protests as “destructive forces” and “terrorists” without showing any evidence and imposed a two-week state of emergency and curfew in the city on 5 January. The same day a total blackout of communications, including the internet, was imposed on the whole country.
On 6 January Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation to send troops, mostly Russian, to restore order in Almaty.
The following day Tokayev blamed “certain human rights activists”, “free media outlets” and “foreign figures” for the tragic events which sent shockwaves sent through the country’s civil society and media circles.
As the number of those detained started rising throughout the country, exceeding 10,000 as of 13 January, many Almaty-based journalists and activists have become reluctant to share their views publicly on the ongoing events in their city.
However, Index spoke to some who would talk despite the current situation.
Ardak Bukeyeva, an independent journalist from Almaty, says that following the violence on Almaty’s main square her attempts to find out about the casualties at the city’s main morgue, ambulance hospitals and other medical facilities were fruitless because staff refused to provide the information, citing ‘no disclosure’ orders from above.
As communications were cut off, Bukeyeva headed to the city hall in the hope she would find information on missing relatives or victims. As she approached the building she heard shots fired to warn her away.
“Shutting down communications, especially the internet, violated my rights not only to access information as a citizen but also to disseminate it as journalist,” she says.
Bukeyeva hopes the human cost of suppressing genuine public protests about socioeconomic and political issues will lead to meaningful changes in the country. Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, only relieved the last vestiges of his omnipotent powers after holding a tight grip on them for over 30 years in protests in 2019.
Some of those who went out to Almaty’s city square on the first night of protests when they still were peaceful say that they would not even contemplate a protest in the current atmosphere of uncertainty.
Darkhan Sharipov, an activist from the Oyan, Qazaqstan! (“Wake Up, Kazakhstan!”) civil movement for political reform, was detained on the first night of the protests and kept until 3am when the protests turned violent. The following day, he and his fellow activists went back to the square but saw the violent crowd and decided to leave.
“It was hard to maintain communications because some had internet connections, but others did not,” he said. “After that night of violence we decided not to protest because we are afraid and fear that there might be repercussions.”
Political activist Askhat Belsarimov, who was also detained on the first night of the protests, echoes Sharipov: “We can’t think of protesting at the moment. Maybe, when the foreign troops leave.”
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation troops, which had the mandate of guarding government buildings and strategic facilities, started pulling out of Almaty on 13 January. The pull-out is expected to be completed by 19 January when the state of emergency ends. Should the Russian troops overstay their welcome, it will be a completely uncertain future not only for independent journalists and human rights activists but the whole county.
As for the country’s independent media, that remains to be seen.
While access to KazTAG was unblocked relatively quickly, it took until 13 January for the unblocking of Orda.kz to be announced by pro-government media outlets.
However, Orda’s Gulnar Bazhkenova told Index this was only partially correct.
“I personally could access to our website on my phone but I cannot do it on my computer which means the block hasn’t been lifted fully,” she said. “That’s why I have appealed to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requesting him to order the complete lifting of the block on our website.”
Kazakhstan’s activists are still concerned despite the seeming return to normality.
Darkhan says, “[The protests] might have ended for the general public but for civil society [the crackdown] is only starting,” he says. “It’s dangerous now. We all are keeping our heads down and waiting to see what happens.”