Uyghur exiles in Istanbul, numbering some 50,000 people, have in recent weeks stepped up their protests against Chinese repression in their native Xinjiang, amid fears that the traditional support received from the Turkish authorities may be fading.
“There is no Uyghur here who does not have a relative in the Chinese government’s concentration camps,” Habibullah, a store owner who sells products from East Turkestan, as the Uyghurs call their land, tells EFE.
The Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim minority, live in Xinjiang, in western China, where they number some 12 million, but tens of thousands have fled into exile in the last ten years in the face of what they see as persecution of their culture and religion.
Since a wave of Jihadist attacks in Xinjiang between 2011 and 2016 and the emergence of pro-independence proclamations, several international organizations have denounced the internment of up to more than one million Uyghurs in Chinese “re-education” camps.
Since last December, Uyghur activists have gathered once a week in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul with banners and slogans such as “China, free my family” to demand that Beijing clarify where their relatives are held in “re-education camps”.
The Uyghurs in Turkey have collected some 5,000 cases of disappearances they believe they have verified and are trying to hand over the documents to the legation, but the consular staff will not accept them.
The Turkish Islamist government presented itself until recently as a strong defender of the “Uyghur brothers,” but now seems to maintain a more passive and silent stance.
The Turkish opposition links this attitude to the attempts of the President, Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to ingratiate himself with Beijing, after escalating tensions with the United States and the European Union.
An extradition treaty between China and Turkey, signed years ago, was ratified last December by Beijing, which now worries Uyghurs in Istanbul.
If the Turkish Parliament also initials it, Ankara could extradite or repatriate Uyghur activists wanted by China.
One of those expressing that fear is Abdullah Rasul, a 36-year-old Uyghur resident of Istanbul since 2015, with numerous family members held in concentration camps.
“So far it hasn’t happened, but it could happen. Or maybe China could bribe intermediate officials and take some people away illegally,” he warns in statements.
However -the activist assures- public criticism from several Turkish political parties gives him hope that the controversial treaty between Beijing and Ankara will remain in the drawer.
Some delays in the delivery of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac, with which Turkey is trying to curb the coronavirus pandemic, have given rise to speculation about a kind of “vaccine pact of silence,” a theory put forward by the opposition social democratic CHP party.
“By refusing to endorse a letter signed by 39 countries and by rejecting in Parliament (last July) a proposal to support the Uyghurs, the ruling AKP party and its partner, the MHP, are showing inconsistency,” CHP deputy Özgür Karabat told EFE.
The opposition parliamentarian was referring to a text circulated during the last UN General Assembly which was endorsed by a group of 39 countries, mainly Western powers and their allies, denouncing the violation of human rights in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.
The group – which includes the United States, Germany, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom and others – said it was “gravely concerned” by “credible” reports that “more than one million people have been arbitrarily detained”.
According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, human rights in China are going through “their darkest period” since the repression of the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989, and cites, in addition to the case of the Uyghurs, the attack on freedoms in Hong Kong.