This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country will not give in to pressure from China to extradite Uyghurs who have Turkish citizenship, even if it has strained their relationship.
“Turkish-Chinese ties have suffered over Beijing being disturbed by our attitude on the Turkic Uyghurs issue,” Cavusoglu told reporters at a year-end press briefing in Ankara on Dec. 29, according to Turkish media reports.
“They have extradition requests for people who are our citizens, who live in Turkey all the time. Therefore, we don’t grant any such requests,” he said.
Turkey has been one of the most hospitable countries to Uyghurs, with whom Turks share ethnic, religious and linguistic connections. Roughly 50,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey, forming the largest Uyghur diaspora outside Central Asia.
The Turkish government has offered Uyghurs a safe place to live outside northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, where they face persecution and are subject to human rights violations.
In recent years, the Turkish government has been accused of deporting Uyghur dissidents to China via third countries adjacent to Xinjiang, making it easier for Beijing to secure their extradition and possibly put them in “re-education” camps or prisons.
Cavusoglu said reports in past years that Turkey has been sending Uyghurs back to China were “total lies.”
“We defend Turkic Uyghurs’ rights in the international arena, and this disturbs China,” he said. “But this is a humanitarian issue.”
Cavusoglu cited a report on Uyghurs in Xinjiang issued in late August 2022 by former U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet that said serious human rights violations had been committed in the context of counter-extremism strategies that “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
“We have to react to it,” he said about the rights violations detailed in the report.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a 2019 visit, he raised the treatment of Uyghurs in private talks and accepted an invitation to send a humanitarian delegation to the Xinjiang region to observe how the minority was being treated.
But the issue caused friction between the two countries after the Turkish government submitted a request to China outlining where the delegation wanted to visit and whom it wanted to speak with, and Beijing did not respond.
“It’s been five years since Xi proposed this. Why have you been preventing this delegation from visiting for five years, why don’t you cooperate?” Cavusoglu said, adding that even the Turkish ambassador in Beijing cannot visit Xinjiang.
Turkish opposition parties say that the foreign minister’s words were motivated more by the desire of the ruling AK Party, or Justice and Development Party, to obtain votes than true concern for the Uyghurs.
“Mevlut Cavusoglu’s words don’t match with reality,” said Fahrettin Yokus, deputy of the nationalist Good Party. “He is raising the Uyghur issue because their party wanted to get votes in the upcoming election in 2023.”
“Turkish people care about the East Turkistan issue,” Yokus said, using Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang. “Unfortunately, the Turkish government did not take the Uyghur issue seriously. Making this statement now, this honorable foreign minister is attempting to hide their shortcomings.”
Among the shortcomings are declaring that the government would respect China’s territorial integrity concerning Xinjiang and closing its eyes to the severe rights violations, including the vast network of internment camps in which an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims were detained, Yokus said.
Selcuk Ozdag, deputy leader of Turkey’s opposition Future Party, said the government had not expressed its firm stance on the Uyghur issue until now because it had hoped to get a low-interest loan from China and bring more Chinese investment to Turkey.
“The Turkish foreign minister made this statement because their expectation from China did not materialize, and the election season is approaching very soon,” he said.