Serik Azhibay was jailed after he staged a one-man picket outside the Chinese consulate in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty. Image: YouTube

Kazakhstan has sentenced an activist to 15 days in prison over a one-man protest calling for the expulsion of the Chinese ambassador over Beijing’s aggressive policies, a fellow activist told AFP Wednesday. 

The rare protest in the mainly Muslim ex-Soviet country came as public opinion has soured towards powerful neighbor China over its treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in western Xinjiang region.

Serik Azhibay was handed the sentence on Monday after he staged a one-man picket outside the Chinese consulate in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty, his friend Baibolat Kunbolat told AFP, confirming local media reports.

“[The court] said the protest was illegal. He will spend 15 days in jail. We brought some clothes and books for him to the detention centre,” Kunbolat said. 

The court in Almaty did not respond to a request for confirmation. 

Video footage of Azhibay’s protest showed him detained for holding a placard with a picture of Chinese Ambassador Zhang Xiao and the words “Persona non grata.”

Azhibay said during his protest that Zhang should be expelled for comments reported in Chinese state media this month that Kazakhstan and China were working together to stop “color revolutions” in the region.  

Azhibay said this represented interference in Kazakhstan’s internal affairs.

Zhang has courted controversy in Kazakhstan with his robust defence of Beijing’s policies in the neighboring Chinese region of Xinjiang, where around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live alongside Uighurs and other Turkic and Muslim minorities. 

Activists say China has incarcerated about one million people in brainwashing camps in the region, a mass detention that US officials have said has parallels with the Holocaust. 

China describes the camps as vocational training centres and says it is seeking to provide education to reduce the allure of Islamic radicalism.

Both Azhibay and Kunbolat have relatives in Xinjiang, Kunbolat told AFP.

Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government has trumpeted a new law on public assemblies as a significant reform, but civic groups say the law has changed little and peaceful protesters are still subject to arrests. 

The oil-rich country of 18 million people maintains close ties with neighbouring China and has described itself as the “buckle” in Beijing’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.