BEIJING -- Abdullah Metseydi, a Uighur in Turkey, was readying for bed last month when he heard commotion, then pounding on the door. “Police! Open the door!”
A dozen or more officers poured in, many bearing guns and wearing the camouflage of Turkey’s anti-terror force. They asked if Metseydi had participated in any movements against China and threatened to deport him and his wife. They took him to a deportation facility, where he now sits at the center of a brewing political controversy.
Opposition legislators in Turkey are accusing Ankara’s leaders of secretly selling out Uighurs to China in exchange for coronavirus vaccines. Tens of millions of vials of promised Chinese vaccines have not yet been delivered. Meanwhile, in recent months, Turkish police have raided and detained around 50 Uighurs in deportation centers, lawyers say — a sharp uptick from last year.
Although no hard evidence has yet emerged for a quid pro quo, these legislators and the Uighurs fear that Beijing is using the vaccines as leverage to win passage of an extradition treaty. The treaty was signed years ago but suddenly ratified by China in December, and could come before Turkish lawmakers as soon as this month.
Uighurs say the bill, once law, could bring their ultimate life-threatening nightmare: Deportation back to a country they fled to avoid mass detention. More than a million Uighurs and other largely Muslim minorities have been swept into prisons and detention camps in China, in what China calls an anti-terrorism measure but the United States has declared a genocide.
“I'm terrified of being deported,” said Melike, Metseydi's wife, through tears, declining to give her last name for fear of retribution. “I’m worried for my husband's mental health.”
Suspicions of a deal emerged when the first shipment of Chinese vaccines was held up for weeks in December. Officials blamed permit issues.
But even now, Yildirim Kaya, a legislator from Turkey’s main opposition party, said that China has delivered only a third of the 30 million doses it promised by the end of January. Turkey is largely reliant on China’s Sinovac vaccine to immunize its population against the virus, which has infected some 2.5 million and killed over 26,000.
“Such a delay is not normal. We have paid for these vaccines," Kaya said. “Is China blackmailing Turkey?”
Kaya said he’s formally asked the Turkish government about pressure from China but has not yet received a response.
Both Turkish and Chinese authorities insist that the extradition bill isn’t meant to target Uighurs for deportation. Chinese state media called such concerns “smearing," and foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denied any connection between vaccines and the treaty.
“I think your speculation is unfounded,” Wang said at a Thursday press briefing.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in December that the vaccine delay was not related to the issue of the Uighurs.
“We do not use the Uighurs for political purposes, we defend their human rights,” Cavusoglu said.
But though very few have actually been deported for now, the recent detentions have sent a chill through Turkey’s estimated 50,000-strong Uighur community. And in recent weeks, the Turkish ambassador in Beijing has praised China’s vaccines while adding that Ankara values “judicial cooperation” with China — code, many Uighurs fear, for a possible crackdown.
In the past, a small number of Uighurs have traveled to Syria to train with militants. But most Uighurs in Turkey shun jihadis and worry they are hurting the Uighur cause.
Lawyers representing the detained Uighurs say that in most cases, the Turkish police have no evidence of links to terror groups. Ankara law professor Ilyas Dogan believes the detentions are politically motivated.
“They have no concrete evidence,” said Dogan, who is representing six Uighurs now in deportation centers, including Metseydi. “They're not being serious.”
Even if the bill is ratified, Dogan doubts there would be mass deportations, given widespread public sympathy for the Uighurs in Turkey. But he believes the chances of individuals being deported would go up significantly.
Because of shared cultural ties, Turkey has long been a safe haven for the Uighurs, a Turkic group native to China’s far west Xinjiang region. Turkish President Recep Erdogan denounced China’s treatment of the Uighurs as “genocide” over a decade ago.
That all changed with an attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, which prompted a mass purge and alienated Erdogan from Western governments. Waiting to fill the void was China, which is loaning and investing billions in Turkey.
Signs of strong economic ties abound, big and small: An exporter with business in China was appointed Turkey’s ambassador to Beijing. A Chinese-funded $1.7 billion coal plant is rising on the banks of Turkey’s Mediterranean sea. Istanbul’s airport obtained the world’s first “Chinese Friendly Airport” certification, setting aside check-in counters to receive thousands of tourists from Shanghai and Beijing. And President Erdogan's once-fiery rhetoric has turned dull and diplomatic, praising China’s leaders for their assistance.
China also began requesting the extradition of many more Uighurs from Turkey. In one leaked 2016 extradition request first reported by Axios and obtained independently by The Associated Press, Chinese officials asked for the extradition of a Uighur former cellphone vendor, accusing him of promoting the Islamic State terror group online. The vendor was arrested but eventually released and cleared of charges.
Abdurehim Parac, a Uighur poet detained twice in the past few years, said even detention in Turkey was “hotel-like” compared to the “hellish” conditions he was subjected to during three years in Chinese prison. Imim was eventually released after a judge cleared his name. But he has difficulty sleeping at night out of fear that the extradition bill might be ratified, and called the pressure “unbearable”.
“Death awaits me in China,” he said.
Rising fears are already prompting an influx of Uighurs moving to Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries. Some are so desperate they’re even sneaking across borders illegally, said Ali Kutad, who fled China for Turkey in 2016.
“Turkey is our second homeland,” Kutad said. “We’re really afraid.”
Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul contributed to this report. Fraser reported from Ankara.