Kazakh human rights campaigner Bulat Abilov linked to forced labour camps in China

The controversial Kazakh human rights campaigner Bulat Abilov has earned millions of dollars from products made by Uighur Muslims in forced Chinese labour camps, it has emerged.

Abilov, a financier and politician in his native Kazakhstan, is seeking to reinvent himself as an anti-kleptocracy and pro-democracy campaigner and heads an organisation called the Foundation for Asset Recovery ( Elge Qaitaru ).

But Abilov’s campaigning work may be undermined by revelations that he has made millions of dollars from a vast solar energy empire that has been accused of exploiting forced labour in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Via a complex web of Singaporean and Hong Kong companies, Abilov has partnered with a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official in at least two major solar energy projects in Kazakhstan that used polysilicon extracted from Xinjiang in northern China.

The revelations of Bulat Abilov’s links to Chinese labour camps will be particularly embarrassing for some British MPs, who have recently met with the campaigner to discuss reform in Kazakhstan.

Abilov flew to the UK in December to hold talks with former Brexit Minister David Davis, who is a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and has been vocal critic of the Xinjiang labour camps, and the veteran anti-corruption Labour MP Margaret Hodge.

Details of the meetings came to light after Abilov boasted of them on his Facebook page where he also published a photo of himself and Dame Margaret meeting in the House of Commons.

Corporate records show that Abilov was in business with two Chinese companies – Universal Energy and CHINT Electrics – which were contracted to provide solar panels and manage projects in Kazakhstan.

Universal Energy oversees solar projects across central Asia and claims it was “born against the backdrop of the Belt and Road Initiative”, the Chinese government’s notorious scheme to expand Beijing’s global influence.

The company’s CEO is Nan Yi, a high-ranking member of the Chinese Community Party and Oxford University graduate. Yi has held meetings with President Xi Jinping and was awarded a prize for his efforts expanding China’s sphere of influence across the world.

A major shareholder in Universal Energy and also a director at CHINT is Nan Cun Fei, Nan Yi’s father and a senior member of the Communist Party in China who previously served as Vice President of Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce and attended meetings of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

According to records , in at least two Kazakh solar projects which involved Abilov, CHINT provided the polysilicon. A 2021 report by Sheffield Hallam University claimed that CHINT and one of its subsidiaries, Astronergy, “have a risk of labour transfers in their supply chains”.

A separate investigation by Nottingham University concluded that CHINT was a “first tier buyer from firms tied to forced labour”.

CHINT also has a presence in the UK. In March 2022, the company “played a major role” in providing transformers for a battery storage unit in Swindon.

Abilov sold his stake in the solar projects two weeks after his meeting in London.

Abilov is not the only controversial Kazakh businessman who has held unofficial meetings with British MPs.

Former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin , who now heads the Coalition of Civil Society of Kazakhstan, another organisation supposedly promoting democracy in Kazakhstan, has also held meetings with Dame Margaret Hodge.

In an interview last February, Kazhegeldin indicated that he had provided Dame Margaret with a list of names of Kazakh oligarchs who she said should be sanctioned. Kazhegeldin said: “You know that Margaret Hodge MP has mentioned that there is a demand to freeze. This list was not born in her head and did not fall from the sky; the list was put forward and prepared by British NGOs with the help of the Kazakh opposition that is forced to live abroad.”

But the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has revealed Kazhegeldin’s intimate involvement in the multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal dubbed Kazakhgate, from which the former prime minister allegedly made $6 million.