Uyghur woman serving 20-year sentence for speaking to Turkish PM 10 years ago

Meryem Emet had an hour-long conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
By Jilil Kashgary
2022.03.22
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Uygurs and others surround Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (C) as he visits the Grand Baazar in Urumqi, capital of northwestern China's Xinjiang region, April 8, 2012.
Photo courtesy of East Turkestan Education & Solidarity Association

A Uyghur woman who spoke for an hour with a Turkish politician a decade ago during his visit to a famous bazaar in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region was arrested for her transgression in 2017 and is serving a 20-year prison sentence, her husband said.

When then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a historic visit to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in April 2012, he was warmly welcomed. Turkey shares linguistic and cultural ties with Uyghurs, more than 50,000 of whom have emigrated or escaped to the Middle Eastern country from Xinjiang.

Erdoğan’s first official visit to China in his new position began in Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi), the region’s capital, and drew international attention. When he visited the Grand Bazaar in the city’s Dongkowruk (Erdaoqiao) area, one of Xinjiang’s top landmarks, many Uyghurs surrounded him to congratulate him and speak to him.

Meryem Emet (in Chinese, Aimati), a Uyghur married to a Turkish citizen who spoke fluent Turkish, was among those at the Grand Bazaar who spoke with Erdoğan at the time.

Afterwards, she was targeted by Chinese security forces for her hour-long conversation and later imprisoned, said Abdüllatif Kuçar, her husband who lives in Istanbul with their two children.

“The mother of my children was sentenced for 20 years and is currently in a Chinese jail,” he told RFA last week. “Although she was born and raised in Urumqi, she was summoned to Kuchar, and they jailed her there.”

Emet was arrested in 2017 amid a wider crackdown by Chinese government authorities on predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. She was taken to an internment camp in Kuchar (Kuche) county in southern Xinjiang’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture.

Emet’s detention drew the attention of the U.N. human rights office (OHCHR) and international human rights organizations.

Even though Emet, an only child, had not been born in Kuchar, her ancestors were from there, as was her husband.

“When Erdoğan went to Urumqi, my wife met him, and afterwards, they [Chinese authorities] took her away many times for interrogations,” said Abdüllatif Kuçar, who is now hospitalized with late-stage cancer.

When authorities questioned Emet about her conversation with Erdoğan, she told them that she said “hosgeldiniz,” or “welcome” in Turkish. Erdoğan asked Emet how she knew Turkish and invited her to a meeting room where the politician, his wife and daughter talked to her for an hour, Kuçar said.

When Nur Bekri, the now imprisoned former chairman of the XUAR between 2008 and 2014, entered the room for a meeting with Erdoğan, he told Emet to get out, Kuçar recalled. But Erdoğan told Nur Bekri, “Don’t interfere. She is our bride.”

Later, when Emet’s mother became seriously ill and died, authorities confiscated Emet’s passport, Kuçar said.

“They have destroyed our family since then,” he said.

“They have all sorts of excuses to make in order to imprison people who have committed no crime,” Kuçar said about the Chinese authorities.

Xinjiang government authorities were on high alert at the time of Erdoğan’s 2012 visit and became uneasy when accompanying Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, attended Friday prayers at the Noghay Mosque in Urumqi, exciting many local Uyghurs.

At the time, Turkish media reported that Erdoğan’s visit to Xinjiang as the first stop in his China tour was important because he wanted to attract Turkish investors to the region to revitalize trade relations and support the economic development of the Uyghurs.

A final visit

Authorities forced Kuçar to leave the country before Emet was arrested, and he went to Turkey.

After Emet was taken away, her three-year-old and five-year-old children were taken to state boarding schools in Urumqi, where they stayed for nearly 20 months.

When the Chinese government allowed Kuçar to travel to Urumqi in December 2019 to collect the children to take them to Turkey, he found them malnourished and traumatized, one of his relatives said.

Before returning to Turkey, Kuçar and the children went to Kuchar to visit Emet, meeting her for the first time in two years. But Emet acted like a “statue” and did not respond to the family, making her husband concerned about her wellbeing, said the relative, who declined to be identified for safety reasons.

The family member also said that the Chinese government sentenced Emet to 20 years for “marrying a foreigner” and meeting and for speaking with Erdoğan.

Kuçar told RFA that his children are well in Turkey, and that after receiving therapy and attending local schools, they had regained the Uyghur and Muslim identities they lost while living in the Chinese government-run orphanages.

Rights activists in Turkey familiar with the case said many Uyghurs who are now Turkish citizens have been unable to get their family members out of Xinjiang.

Hamidhan Gokturk, founder of the Uyghur News and Research Center in Turkey and former secretary of the East Turkistan Foundation, said the Turkish government has a responsibility to its citizens to help relocate their family members still in Xinjiang, regardless of the state of Sino-Turkish relations.

“Turkey like other countries such as France has to bring back its own citizens trapped in China,” he told RFA.

Family separations are part of the Chinese government’s efforts to eradicate Uyghur culture and language, along with systematic abuse, including arbitrary detentions on trumped-up offenses, against members of the predominantly Muslim minority group, according to human rights experts.

The U.S. and the legislatures of some Western countries have declared that the abuse of Uyghurs constitutes genocide and crimes against humanity, but China’s government rejects the accusations.

Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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