Uyghurs in Turkey face an uncertain future as Ankara considers the fate of its extradition agreement with Beijing

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The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress ratified the extradition agreement signed in 2017 with Turkey on December 26, 2020. The news made thousands of Uyghurs living in Turkey begin to fear for the possibility that they might be extradited back to China at Beijing’s request. Meanwhile, the international community is also closely monitoring whether Turkey’s parliament will ratify the agreement or not.

Mirzehmet İlyasoglu, a Uyghur man living in Turkey, said the Chinese government has long viewed the Uyghurs as targets for crackdown. Any Uyghur who has studied, travelled to or lived in Turkey will be viewed as a separatist by Beijing, according to İlyasoglu. “The main targets of the extradition agreement are the Uyghurs, and every one of us is worried,” Ilyyasoglu said.

As for Jevlan Shirmemmet, a Uyghur man who has lived in Turkey for almost ten years, he thinks if the Turkish parliament ratified the agreement and begin to extradite Chinese citizens back to China, it will be a big warning sign for Uyghurs in Turkey.

“China isn’t a country that respects human rights and they shouldn’t even be talking about human rights, since survival is even a problem for some ethnic minorities in the country,” said Shirmemmet. “Take the Uyghurs as examples, at least over one million of us have been detained in the mass-internment camps across Xinjiang. I trust the Turkish law, but I don’t trust the Chinese law. China is an authoritarian country, not a country of rule of law.”

However, both of them also mentioned that while Turkey can’t openly speak up for the Uyghurs internationally due to some economic factors, they think the Turkish people and Turkish government are very supportive of the Uyghurs.

“Many Uyghurs living in Turkey have been given residential permits and some of them even got Turkish passports,” said Shirmemmet. “In this respect, I think Turkey has offered the Uyghurs quite some support.”

İlyasoglu said that since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan still described Turkey’s decision to hand some Azerbaijanis to Russia as a historical insult, he thinks a leader like him probably wouldn’t extradite Uyghurs back to China.

“If the Turkish parliament ratified the extradition agreement, all opposition parties will seriously condemn the government,” he said. “As a result, I think Uyghurs are still confident that Turkey may not ratify this agreement with China.”

What is Turkey’s position on the issue?

Since China ratified the agreement at the end of last year, the topic has gained a lot of attention in Turkey. Yurter Özcan, the U.S. Representative for Turkey’s main opposition party CHP, said that as Turkey’s economy is in a very desperate situation, Turkish government needs to seek financial support from other countries.

However, some experts point out that since the failed coup in 2016, Turkish President Erdoğan began a large-scale crackdown against his political opponents in the country, causing Turkey’s political situation to deteriorate.

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According to Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, while the western world would be willing to offer financial support to Turkey, they also expect Turkey to improve its rule of law and democracy. “Since Erdoğan is unwilling to do so, that makes China one of the few countries left that could still extend economic resources to Turkey,” Kirisci said.

Kirisci said Turkey’s possible economic reliance on China could become a leverage for Beijing to pressure Ankara into ratifying the extradition agreement.

As all sides continue to predict Turkey’s possible moves regarding the extradition agreement with China, a diplomatic source said Turkey’s extradition agreement with China is in line with international law, and it is “very misleading” to consider that the treaty is targeting Uyghurs in Turkey.

“The agreement which is under the ratification process is within the Grand National Assembly of Turkey’s (GNAT) discretion for approval as in the case of all other agreements,” the diplomatic source said.

The Turkish official also said that Turkey has a national policy that requires the government to preserve the wellbeing, language, religion and identity of their related communities in other countries. The Turkish government is also expected to ensure that these related communities live in peace and prosperity through cooperation with the related countries.

“Our approach concerning the Uyghurs is also a part of this national policy,” the official said. “We share our concerns related to Uyghur Turks with PRC authorities at every level. Within this framework, we express our position through national statements at the international platforms dealing with the issue, like the United Nations.”

China’s goal to counter “terrorism” with the extradition agreement

Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained at least over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities into internment camps across Xinjiang, and thousands of Uyghurs began to flee abroad. More than 50,000 Uyghurs are currently living in Turkey.

Before Beijing officially announced the ratification of the extradition bill with Turkey, China’s state-run tabloid Global Times published a report two days before the announcement, suggesting that the goal for Beijing to ratify the extradition agreement with Turkey is to “promote bilateral judicial cooperation and facilitate cracking down on transnational crimes, including terrorism.”

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A counter-terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations told Global Times that the extradition bill can not only “help safeguard peace and stability in Chinese territories,” it can also “facilitate counter-terrorism actions in the region extending from China’s northwestern border.”

Over the last few years, China has been using “counter-terrorism” and “de-radicalization” as the reasons to defend its re-education camp policies in Xinjiang. In march 2019, the State Department in China published a white paper that explains the “origin of terrorism and extremism” in Xinjiang and how they planned to crack down on the rise of the phenomenon.

Human rights organizations worry that if Turkey ratified the extradition agreement, Beijing could use different ways to pressure Turkey into extraditing Uyghurs back to China. Dolkun Isa, the President of the World Uyghur Congress, said the news of China’s ratification of the extradition agreement has created great concerns among the Uyghur community in Turkey.

“Due to the repression against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a large number of them have fled abroad and become stateless,” Isa said. “They live under precarious conditions. The extradition agreement would aggravate their situation even further, as it would place these Uyghurs at a greater risk of being forcibly returned to China, where they could face severe maltreatment.”

Isa emphasized that while both China and Turkey claimed that their goal to ratify the extradition agreement is to counter terrorism, but the way China defines terrorism is very different from other countries. “Under the guise of counterterrorism, China has criminalized and detained Uyghurs for everyday lawful, non-violent behaviors, including traveling or having family abroad,” Isa said.

“If Turkey ratified the agreement, it is likely to become another instrument of persecution for China, aiding the Chinese government in its coordinated efforts to forcibly return Uyghurs living abroad.Turkey has an obligation under international law and the principle of non-refoulement to prevent Uyghurs in Turkey from being returned to China.”

The piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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