Extradition treaty with China leaves Turkey’s Uighur population in danger

Turkey signed its first extradition treaty with China in 2017, and the treaty is now waiting for ratification before parliament. For a number of years, exiled Uighur Muslims from China’s Xinjiang region who live in Turkey have worried for their safety, and many have already fled to Europe.

I have met Uighur refugees, who initially sought refuge in Turkey, but then decided to claim asylum in Britain as they felt that Turkey would not protect them. One person told me that the government had initially treated the ethnically Turkic Uighur community who had come to Turkey well, working behind the scenes to support them. 

But then, Turkey also deported some Uighurs back to China. It was this inconsistency, they said, that was causing confusion and fear among them.

Article 1 of the extradition treaty between Turkey and China states that extradition can occur if one country launches a criminal investigation against one of its citizens resident in the other country. There are some qualifications to this, stating that a country can refuse an extradition request if, for example, they consider the request to be politically motivated.

So the treaty leaves the safety of Uighurs in Turkey up to the discretion of the Turkish government. If it wants to engage in a transactional diplomatic relationship with China, it could extradite some Uighurs to please the Chinese government, or withhold extraditions in exchange for some other benefit. 

Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkey’s diplomatic relationship with the United States was characterised by a transactional diplomacy, which included taking and releasing American hostages. One of them was Pastor Andrew Brunson, who Ankara hoped to leverage for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the former ally to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Ankara blames for the failed coup attempt of 2016. Turkey continues to jail two former Turkish staff of the U.S. State Department.

“The China-Turkey agreement, pending approval in Parliament, has a clause that parties can take their citizens from the other country if they are under investigation,” one Twitter user said. “With its ratification, China will extradite Uighurs in Turkey one by one. My advice to Uighur Turks in Turkey is ‘move to European countries immediately for your own safety’.”

Uighur refugees are a very vulnerable community. Uighurs outside China are in a constant state of concern about their families back home, and have often been unable to contact them for years. I have tried to suggest to Uighurs I have met that I would like to interview them, anonymously, to write about the situation. Even anonymously, with all identifying details removed, they always refuse. 

They are afraid of the long arm of an increasingly prosperous and powerful Chinese state. In a recent article in the Guardian, Gulbahar Haitiwaji described the horrific story of how she was lured home to China, a country she had not been to for many years, in order to fill out some paperwork, only to be kidnapped and interned in a prison camp for Uighurs where she was psychologically and physically tortured and forced to repeat propaganda for two years.

“We were ordered to deny who we were. To spit on our own traditions, our beliefs. To criticise our language. To insult our own people. Women like me, who emerged from the camps, are no longer who we once were. We are shadows; our souls are dead. I was made to believe that my loved ones, my husband and my daughter, were terrorists,” Haitiwaji wrote.

Turkey is in the middle of an economic crisis, and it is reluctant to do anything to alienate a growing China, which could prove a lucrative market for its exports. It also relies on China for many imports. In the last few days, state-run Anadolu Agency has reported on Turkey’s growing boron exports to China. 

In December, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested that Turkey had previously refused requests by China to extradite Uighurs.

"Until now, there have been requests for returns from China related to Uighurs in Turkey. And you know Turkey hasn't taken steps like this," Çavuşoğlu said to reporters in Ankara.

France24 reported that despite this, there had been news reports of Turkey quietly returning Uighurs to China via third countries.

According to Arab News, President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party vetoed an opposition motion to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate China’s treatment of Uighurs last year, while in November, Yusufujrang Aimaitijiang, an Uighur man who claimed to have been forced by Chinese authorities to provide information about fellow Uighurs in Turkey, was gunned down in Istanbul.

Turkey is also relying on China for deliveries of the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine, and Indian think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) recently published a report suggesting that Beijing was “also trying hard to pressurise Turkey to stop Uighur activists in the country from protesting against the CCP by using its COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy.”

A recent AP news report described how “in recent months, Turkish police have raided and detained around 50 Uighurs in deportation centers.” The suggestion is that this is linked to the rollout of the Sinovac vaccine, because “China has delivered only a third of the 30 million doses it promised by the end of January”, and Turkey is currently solely reliant on China to vaccinate its population.

Given these facts, the estimated 50,000 strong Uighur community in Turkey can’t be feeling entirely secure. While it is likely that opposition parties in Turkey, especially the nationalist, pan-Turkist ones, would protest if Turkey began extraditing dozens of Uighurs to China, Turkey’s government is not in an economic situation in which it feels confident enough to criticise a Chinese government it is in need of doing business with. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.