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Turkey calls on China to close Xinjiang political ‘re-education camps’

Market in Kashgar, Xinjiang, West China. 2008. (ChiralJon/Flickr)
February 13, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Turkey has called on China to close its network of political “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in a rare condemnation from the Muslim world of the East Asian nation’s persecution of ethnic Turkic Uyghurs and other Muslims that has increasingly drawn international attention.

In a statement issued Saturday, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said rights violations in the XUAR have worsened, particularly since April 2017, when authorities began to detain Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in re-education camps throughout the region.

Aksoy said that the international community is increasingly aware of the scale of the camp system, where an estimated 1.1 million people have been held and subjected to what he called “torture and political brainwashing,” while those spared from the camps “are under heavy pressure.”

“The reintroduction of internment camps … and the policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks carried out by the authorities of China is a great shame for humanity,” the spokesman said, adding that Turkey had expressed its concerns on “the tragedy in the Xinjiang region” to Chinese authorities at all levels.

“On this occasion, we invite the Chinese authorities to respect the fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and to close the internment camps,” he said.

Aksoy also called on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to “take effective measures in order to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang.”

Turkey has been largely silent on the situation in the XUAR, despite being home to one of the world’s largest Uyghur exile communities, and Aksoy acknowledged in his statement that Turkish citizens of Uyghur ethnicity are unable to communicate with their relatives back home, while “thousands of children” have been removed from their detained parents there, further impacting families.

The foreign ministry spokesman also said Turkey had learned of the death in prison of prominent Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit, who had served two years of an eight-year jail sentence “for one of his songs.”

“This tragedy has further reinforced the reaction of the Turkish public opinion towards serious human rights violations committed in the Xinjiang region,” he said.

“We expect this legitimate response to be taken into account by the Chinese authorities.”

It is unclear what, beyond the possible death of Heyit, prodded Turkey to engage China on its re-education camps.

The country, whose president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has presented himself as a protector of Islam, will host nationwide local elections on March 31.

While Erdogan spoke out against China’s crackdown on Uyghurs following ethnic violence in the XUAR in 2009, ruffling feathers in Beijing, ties between the two countries improved after the Turkish president faced a failed coup in 2016 and criticism from the West.

Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.

China’s embassy in Ankara responded to Saturday’s statement by echoing Zakir’s claims, and noting that Turkey faces similar threats of terrorism. It also called Aksoy’s remarks “completely against the truth.”

On Sunday, Chinese state media published a video online that purportedly shows Heyit alive, and in which the musician claims he is “in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating the national laws.”

The subject of the video goes on to say that he is “in good health and have never been abused,” although experts have said his body language and choice of words suggest he is being held under duress.

International pressure

Uyghur exiles praised Turkey for speaking out against China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the XUAR, but questioned why it had waited so long to do so.

Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said he hoped Turkey’s statement would set a standard for other Muslim nations to hold China to account for its policies in the XUAR.

“It is a positive development for Turkey to break its silence and condemn China’s crimes against humanity that is taking place in East Turkestan,” he said, using a name preferred by many Uyghurs to refer to their historic homeland.

“I hope this will be a new beginning for other Turkic and Muslim countries to express their serious concerns over the mass incarceration of [more than a million] Uyghur Turkic Muslims.”

Isa said that China’s rapid response to Turkey’s claims about Heyit’s death in prison “highlights China’s anxiety over Turkey and other Muslim countries raising the Uyghur issue around the world.”

He said it suggests China is “highly susceptible to political pressure” to close the camps coming from Turkey and other nations.

Nury Turkel, chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project exile group, also said he believes Turkey’s statement had rattled Beijing and shows that international pressure can have an effect on China’s policies.

“Despite China’s desperate efforts trying to restructure its narrative to produce a positive spin, its quick response to long overdue Turkish criticism on the ongoing horrific situation in East Turkestan shows that international pressure works in the effort to shut down the modern day internment camps,” he said.

Referring to the video published by state media that claims to show Heyit, Turkel suggested that any statement by the Chinese government “should be taken with a grain of salt.”

“We hope this video is authentic, so that we know Mr. Heyit is still alive,” he said.

“That said, the burden of proof is on the Chinese government to show that this video is authentic and the information it made public is factual.”