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Activists Cite Increasing Arrests of Uyghurs with Turkish Connections

FILE - Ethnic Uyghur demonstrators protest against China, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sept. 30, 2021. Though Turkey has been a haven for Uyghurs fleeing China, some say there has been an increase in arrests of those who have pursued studies abroad, especially in Turkey.
FILE - Ethnic Uyghur demonstrators protest against China, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sept. 30, 2021. Though Turkey has been a haven for Uyghurs fleeing China, some say there has been an increase in arrests of those who have pursued studies abroad, especially in Turkey.

For years Turkey has been a haven for Uyghurs fleeing China, in part because Ankara sees members of the ethnic group as fellow Turkic Muslims, refusing to extradite asylum seekers to China.

But some Uyghurs say there has been a marked increase in recent months of arrests specifically aimed at Uyghurs who have pursued studies abroad, especially in Turkey.

"In recent months, our organization has received detailed information of more than 10 Uyghurs who were apprehended in recent months," said Abduweli Ayup, founder of Norway-based rights group Uyghur Hjelp.

"Notably, all of these individuals had previously visited Turkey," Ayup told VOA. "I have at least five people's full information such as ID numbers, pictures, and full names and so on."

Ayup said all of those recently arrested went to Turkey in the early 2010s and returned home before the Chinese authorities began mass arrests of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang in 2017.

Among them is Nureli Haji, a Uyghur pop singer and member of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Xinjiang Art Theater. Haji pursued music studies in Turkey during the early 2010s. He was taken into custody by Xinjiang police earlier this year in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, according to a friend who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the authorities in the province.

"At the time of his arrest, Nureli Haji's wife was nine months' pregnant with their second child. Tragically, his wife fainted upon hearing the news, leading to the unfortunate loss of their 9-month-old baby while still in the mother's womb," said the friend, who managed to leave Xinjiang.

According to the anonymous Uyghur, Nureli Haji is not the only musician who has faced arrest after having visited Turkey.

"Two years ago, another renowned Uyghur traditional musician and singer, Shireli Eltikin, was apprehended by Chinese authorities. He too had traveled to Turkey in the early 2010s," said the anonymous Uyghur.

"Eltikin went to the extent of singing a song titled 'Xi Dada' in Chinese, which praised [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping and his policies in Xinjiang. Despite this, he was not spared from the wrath of Xi's government for his foreign visits."

Another friend of Nureli Haji, who lives in Turkey and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation against his relatives in Xinjiang, said Nureli Haji engaged in studies at Istanbul University, focusing on the Turkish language. Subsequently, he pursued his music education until his departure from Turkey in 2014.

This friend said that while in Turkey, Nureli Haji maintained a "discreet presence and intentionally distanced himself" from any political involvement.

"He maintained a low profile and refrained from engaging in any political activities during his time in Turkey. "He was particularly cautious about avoiding any association with the Uyghur political movement in Turkey," the friend told VOA.

A refuge

Since the 1950s, Turkey has served as a refuge for Uyghur exiles who fled China. With a Uyghur population of around 50,000, Turkey offers a supportive environment where these individuals can maintain and nourish their political movement against China.

Additional accounts of the recent detention of Uyghurs who pursued studies abroad, especially in Turkey, were provided by other Uyghurs living in the United States and Europe.

Rayhan Asat, a U.S.-based Uyghur human rights lawyer, said her cousin and the cousin's wife were arrested and sentenced to prison in recent months. According to Asat, the couple traveled to Malaysia in 2012 for English study then traveled to Turkey and returned to Xinjiang in August 2014.

"After returning back, Faruq and his wife opened a small store called 'Mini Istanbul' that had two branches," Asat said.

Asat said the couple were previously held in a "re-education" camp for a year or so in 2018 and 2019 and then released. They now have been "sentenced to another 10 years of detainment without a clear legal reason or judicial process," Asat said.

"So I think even people who have been released from the internment camps are always at the risks of being potentially taken back to the camps and being sentenced," she said

Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in an email to VOA that he was "not aware" of the specific cases cited in this article. But, he wrote, "I want to emphasize that China is a country based on the rule of law."

"The Chinese government protects the lawful rights of Chinese citizens, including their personal freedom and rights of exit and entry. Xinjiang has never restricted the freedom of movement of Uyghurs or people of any other ethnic group," Liu wrote.

"We hope that relevant parties can let go of their preconceived prejudices and view Xinjiang and China under the principle of truthfulness, objectivity and fairness."

Seeking opportunities

According to Ayup of Norway-based Uyghur Hjelp, a growing number of Uyghurs began traveling to Turkey following a visit to Urumqi by Turkey's then-prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2012.

This trend was driven by cultural and linguistic affinities between Uyghurs and Turkish people, along with the educational and business opportunities available in Turkey.

"Those people who recently were arrested went to Turkey during that time when China and Turkey relations entered a new phase of more visits and investment by both countries," Ayup said.

"Even some airlines such as Hainan and China Southern Airlines opened a direct flight from Urumqi to Istanbul during those years."