Turkey Condemns Xinjiang Camps as Concern Grows

Turkey Condemns Xinjiang Camps as Concern Grows

As global concern is rising over the detention of between 800,000 to two million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in re-education camps in , governments of several Muslim majority countries have become the target of protesters angered by their unwillingness to speak out against China’s actions. This weekend, Turkey’s government responded to rumors of the death of popular Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit by issuing a strong condemnation of the camps. Amy Qin reports for The New York Times:

In its statement on Saturday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned China’s “reintroduction of concentration camps in the 21st century and the policy of systematic assimilation” in its far western region of Xinjiang as a violation of the “fundamental human rights” of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.

“It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons,” said the statement from Hami Aksoy, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. He called on the international community and the secretary general of the United Nations to take action to end the “human tragedy.”

The statement came in response to a question about recent reports that Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uighur folk poet and musician, had died in a Chinese internment camp. According to the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Heyit died while serving the second year of an eight-year prison sentence over one of his songs.

[…] The Chinese government did not address reports of the musician’s death in a statement on Sunday, and the Xinjiang regional government did not respond to requests for comment. Later Sunday, however, a video apparently showing Mr. Heyit alive was posted on the Turkish language website of China Radio International, a Chinese official news service. [Source]

Read the full statement from the Turkish government.

Lily Kuo at the Guardian has more on the video of Heyit:

On Sunday, the state-owned China Radio International’s Turkish edition released a video of Heyit, dated 10 February, while the Chinese embassy in Turkey said Ankara had “seriously violated the facts”. The following day, the foreign ministry said Turkey’s statement was an “absurd lie”.

In the 25-second video, a pale-faced Heyit, sitting in front of a grey wall, said he is being investigated for “allegedly violating national laws”. “I’m now in good health and have never been abused,” he said, according to the subtitled video.

The video is Heyit’s first public appearance in almost two years. The musician, known throughout the Turkic-language world for his poetry and performances of traditional Uighur music, is believed to have been arrested in April 2017, according to former colleagues. Heyit’s son was reportedly able to visit him, but friends said they have not heard from him since he was detained.

The video is also a rare rebuttal from China. It is uncommon for Beijing to respond directly to specific cases of individuals believed to be detained in Xinjiang. [Source]

The Chinese government later disputed the Turkish government’s statement, which Xinjiang experts and human rights activists lauded for marking a turning point in the global response to the situation in Xinjiang. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Sunday that Heyit “is being detained for harming national security, and is now undergoing investigation.” Yuan Yang and Ayla Jean Yackley report for the Financial Times:

The Chinese embassy in Turkey said in a statement on Sunday that it “resolutely opposed” Mr Aksoy’s view, saying that both countries faced the problem of terrorism and accusing Ankara of “double standards”. “Since the establishment of the training centres, there have been no violent terrorist incidents in Xinjiang for over 25 months,” wrote the embassy.

But Adrian Zenz, author of a book on China’s policies towards minorities, said the Turkish intervention was a “major new development”.

“A major outcry among the Muslim world was a key missing piece in the global Xinjiang row,” he said. “In my view, it seems that China’s actions in Xinjiang are finally crossing a red line among the world’s Muslim communities, at least in Turkey, but quite possibly elsewhere.” [Source]

Meanwhile, supporters of Heyit’s noted that while the video may provide evidence he is still alive, they remain concerned about his continued detention and treatment by authorities. From Nectar Gan of the South China Morning Post:

“He seemed distressed in the video as if he was having trouble finding his next words to say with trembling lips. That is not the Abdurehim Heyit we have known,” said Alip Erkin, an Australia-based Uygur activist.

Heyit is widely celebrated for his performances on the dutar, a traditional long-necked, two-string lute.

“[The] video itself should be evidence of his wrongful and secret detention for expressing Uygur values in his songs, not as some sort of diplomatic victory for China,” Erkin added.
Some observers said the short clip resembled past “confession” videos of rights advocates and dissidents released by the Chinese government. [Source]

Heyit was detained in 2017 for unknown reasons and has had little contact with his family since. He was profiled in a New York Times article by Neil Strauss in 1999 that described the significance of his music for the people of Xinjiang:

On the other hand, there are the privately manufactured cassettes. These contain Mr. Heet’s original compositions, pieces like ”Stubborn Guest,” an old man’s plea to a lodger who has overstayed his welcome — and a thinly disguised analogy for China’s presence in the surrounding Xinjiang region, which was made a province of China in 1884. Traditionally, Uighur music deals with love, morality and criticisms of misconduct. But Mr. Heet — known as the ”Rooster of Xinjiang” because of his voice — is the first Uighur musician to write about life under Chinese rule. As a result, he has to pay extra money to the private manufacturers of his cassettes to compensate them for the risk they are taking. He distributes these tapes for free.

A master of folk tradition with a fire for protest and poetry, he has become a local Bob Dylan, spurring many musicians to follow in his footsteps (and in at least one case to get arrested for a politically charged performance). Songs like ”Stubborn Guest” and ”Silk,” a paean to Uighur culture, have become anthems and sources of pride in Kashgar, where donkey carts are still the main mode of transportation. [Source]

(See more videos of Heyit performing via YouTube.)

Hundreds of thousands, and perhaps more than a million, Muslims have been rounded up in detention camps in Xinjiang in recent years in a campaign that has just recently gained global media attention. While the Chinese government insists the camps are for “vocational training,” detainees and their families have reported political indoctrination, forced Mandarin language training, torture, and even deaths inside as part of a campaign to eradicate inmates’ Uyghur and Muslim identity. Cultural figures like Heyit and academics who focus on the transmission of Uyghur language and culture have come in for particularly harsh treatment, according to an article by Lisa Movius in the Art Newspaper:

In general, visual artists and photographers in Xinjiang have fared better than the region’s writers, film-makers and musicians. One of the primary objectives of the re-education campaign is to diminish the value and use of the Uyghur language. “Many Uyghur public figures who have disappeared into the prison system were taken because of texts they wrote with the approval of state censors in the past. These texts have now been criminalised,” says Darren Byler, a scholar of Uyghur culture and a lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle, who estimates that “the number of writers, editors, poets, musicians, film-makers and academics that have been detained [is likely to be] in the hundreds”.

“From 2014 to 2016, literary and artistic censorship became intense, and everything in the Uyghur language [was routinely] checked—all songs and all papers,” Hamut says. “In 2007 and 2008, we were able to organise a few films and festivals on Muslim culture. The 1980s and 1990s were good, but since the 2000s it has got tighter and tighter; even cheesy pop culture must be pro-government. It has been a mess, especially since 2009. A lot of things went suddenly from legal to illegal. There has not been a single Uyghur-language book published since 2017, and a lot that was printed before that has not been distributed. Many things that were legal before have been taken away.” [Source]

It’s recently been reported that among those detained are several Australian residents. In response to Heyit’s video, other family members and friends of detainees are now launching an online campaign to ask for similar proof of life for their loved ones:

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