Turkey’s Uyghur Muslims on Tuesday urged the UN human rights chief to independently investigate the so-called “re-education camps” and allegations of rights abuses, torture and even genocide when she visits China’s Xinjiang province this month.
Turkey’s 50,000-strong Uyghur community have staged daily protests outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul over the past few years, holding pictures of their relatives and family members with whom they lost touch for months, and even years.
In March, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she would pay a visit to China, including Xinjiang, in May, after an agreement with Beijing, as rights advocates mounted pressure that her office release its long-postponed report on the rights situation there.
“I am calling on the UN rights chief to walk freely in the concentration camps and talk freely with the people, without surveillance cameras or without the presence of Chinese police, to reveal to the world the human rights situation there,” Mirza Ahmet Ilyasoglu, an Uyghur living in Turkey, told a press conference in Istanbul.
“Because if the UN goes there and listens to the one-sided Chinese thesis … it would come up with a completely false report which would be very embarrassing for the UN and the human rights agency,” he said.
Rights groups say that at least one million mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” spread across the vast northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where China is accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Human rights groups and foreign governments have found evidence of what they say are mass detentions, forced labour, political indoctrination, torture and forced sterilisation. Washington has described it as genocide.
China strongly denies the allegations and says it is running vocational training programmes and work schemes to help stamp out extremism in the region.
-‘Free our relatives’-
Medine Nazimi, an Uyghur woman whose sister is held in one of the camps in Xinjiang, demanded “true answers” about her whereabouts, holding a picture of her with a writing “China, Release my sister!”.
“We want the United Nations to go to our homeland, we want you to check everything. Don’t believe the Chinese government, you have to believe us,” she said.
“My sister is only one of the concentration camp victims … Where is she? Is she healthy? Is she okay? I don’t know,” said Nazimi, who has not received any news from her sister for five years.
“The Chinese government separated us from our loved ones. We don’t get any information about them. We want the UN to close the concentration camps and rescue our family members.”
Speaking to AFP, 50-year-old Fatma Aziz claimed that the Chinese government forced their relatives to stay at home ahead of the UN visit, using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse.
“My aunt is stuck with her two kids in Kashgar. The Chinese jailed her husband just because he recited the Koran,” Aziz said.
“We want the UN to free our relatives.”
Aziz fled to Turkey in 2015 along with her husband and five children.
Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have cultural ties with predominantly Muslim Turkey that make it a favoured destination for avoiding persecution back home.
Gulden Sonmez, a Turkish lawyer, hoped that the UN rights chief would be able to walk the streets of Xinjiang unfettered.
“If she succeeds, she will see this truth: the lands of East Turkestan have nearly completely been transformed into concentration camps. We are talking about millions of people,” she said.
In January, a group of Uyghurs lodged a criminal complaint with a Turkish prosecutor against Chinese authorities, accusing them of rape, torture and forced labour.