This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades for other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on www.nhc.no/en/12womenonthebarricades
Aiman Umarova is a defense lawyer based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, known for her willingness to take on cases that many others would be nervous even to be associated with. She has been threatened with arrest more times than she can remember, tires have been cut on her car. Recently, someone climbed the fence of her home and brutally killed the family dog.
Why? Aiman’s clients are not just anybody. Profiled members of the political opposition, ethnic and religious minorities, children and women who have fallen victim to sexual abuse and violence.
One of her well-known defendants was Vladimir Kozlov, head of the political party Alga!, which was outlawed after 16 striking oil workers were killed in broad daylight, in the western town of Zhanozen in December 2011. Rather than investigating members of the security services, authorities went after the country’s political opposition and independent media. Kozlov was arrested in 2012, and his lawyer Aiman Umarova was able to greet him outside the prison gates only in August 2016. Together they travelled home to Almaty to celebrate with a glass of wine.
Saved from death row
In 2018, Aiman Umarova was awarded the prestigious International Women of Courage Award, presented annually by the United States Department of State to women around the world who have shown leadership, courage, resourcefulness, and willingness to sacrifice for others, especially in promoting women’s rights.
“A case that touched me greatly was that of an ethnic Kazakh woman, who fled China by crossing the border illegally to Kazakhstan”, Aiman explains.
Kazakhstan borders on China, a global power whose presence is increasingly felt in Central Asia. The horrific “re-education camps” in the neighboring Xinjian Province of China, are infamous for their treatment of ethnic Uighurs. Many are not aware that ethnic Kazakhs, residing on Chinese territory, are suffering similar forms of oppression.
“This woman had been in one of the camps in Xinjiang and was facing the death penalty in China. Her historical motherland Kazakhstan did not accept her. I was able to provide legal assistance, and she is now in Sweden with her husband and two children. I now pray for Sweden, who were willing to accept this family.”
I am inspired by people who are scared of nothing, who defend their human rights in the name of their conscience or their convictions.
Serikzhan Bilash was another of Aiman’s defendants. Born in Xinjiang, he has devoted his life to speaking out for Uighurs, Kazakhs and others who are currently in Chinese camps. Fearing diplomatic tensions with their neighbour, Kazakhstan sentenced Bilash to 7 years prison but freed him in August 2019, on the promise that he would quit his campaigning. “I am doing it for my children”, said the brave activist.
Continues the fight
One of the most outrageous cases in Kazakhstan in recent years has been that of Maks Bokayev, a civil activist who spoke out against controversial land reforms, organizing public protests. Kazakhstan has been repeatedly criticized in UN bodies and elsewhere for systematic violations of citizens’ constitutional right to Freedom of Assembly and Association. Bokayev was sentenced to 5 years for his peaceful protest.
“He is still in prison and refuses to give up his convictions in exchange for freedom”, says Aiman.
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