Turkey arrests Chinese nationals suspected of surveilling Uyghurs

The arrests signal Beijing’s waning influence on Istanbul, experts said.
By Arslan Tash for RFA Uyghur
2024.02.22
Turkey arrests Chinese nationals suspected of surveilling Uyghurs Uyghur demonstrators take part in a protest on China's National Day near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, Oct. 1, 2023.
Umit Bektas/Reuters

Authorities in Turkey have arrested six people believed to be spying on members of the Uyghur community in Istanbul for Chinese intelligence, according to media reports.

Members of the Istanbul Anti-Terrorism and Organized Crime Directorate apprehended the six Chinese nationals early on Tuesday, Turkey’s Demiroren News Agency said in a report, citing information provided by the National Intelligence Organization of Turkey.

The group is accused of gathering information about Uyghur organizations, their leaders, and public figures, and transmitting it to Chinese intelligence operatives, the report said. Another suspect remains at large.

Turkey is home to about 50,000 Uyghurs according to a 2021 Nikkei Asia report  

No further information about the suspects was provided and it was not immediately clear whether the suspects were ethnic Uyghurs.

The arrests will send a warning to the Chinese government to curb its espionage activities, Erkin Ekrem, the vice president of the World Uyghur Congress and a strategy expert, told RFA Uyghur.

"This incident sheds light on China's heightened surveillance of Uyghurs,” he said. “Some individuals may be coerced into spying due to threats, while others may engage in such activities for financial gain or other motives.”

ENG_UYG_TurkeyArrests_02222024.2.jpg
Erkin Ekrem, vice president of the World Uyghur Congress, gives a lecture in Turkey on Oct. 9, 2015. (RFA)

Ekrem said that Beijing dispatches spies to foreign countries with sizable Uyghur communities and Uyghur organizations, and many of the spies are themselves Uyghurs.

“Given the increasing international acknowledgment of the East Turkistan cause and the mounting pressure on China, I anticipate that China will intensify its espionage efforts to counter criticism of its regime and allegations of genocide,” he said, using a name preferred by Uyghurs for their homeland, which China calls Xinjiang.

The arrest is a “positive step,” and “sends a message to China,” that Turkey is distancing itself from Beijing, Hidayet Oguzhan, president of the International Union of Eastern Turkistan Organizations, told RFA.

“This action serves two main purposes,” he said. “First, it protects our cause, people, and organizations from the threat of espionage. Second, we interpret Turkey's direct action against individuals working for China and its coverage in the international media as a sign of Turkey's growing distance from China."

The arrest represents a shift in policy, Oguzhan said.

"It is a significant development for Turkey to take proactive measures in East Turkistan matters, especially marking the first instance of such action in our long history in Turkey, particularly against individuals discovered to be collaborating with China against East Turkistan organizations," he said.

But Oguzhan also said that there are more spies in Turkey beyond the suspects in this case.

“We demand the complete expulsion of Uyghurs … acting as spies for China from our society, and we urge Turkey to take a firm stance against them,” he said.  

Abdulreshit Abdulhamit, a representative of the World Uyghur Congress, said that Turkey’s decision to arrest the six “suggests that they possess substantive evidence.”

But he acknowledged that “it may not be appropriate for us to pass judgment on them” and deferred to Turkey’s courts to issue a ruling in the case.

Attempts by RFA to reach both the Istanbul Police Department and the Chinese consulate in Istanbul went unanswered.

Translated by Alim Seytoff. Edited by Eugene Whong.

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