Abdullah Metseydi, a Uighur in Turkey, was readying for bed last month when he heard commotion, then pounding on the door followed by: “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 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 COVID-19 vaccines. Tens of millions of vials of promised Chinese vaccines have not yet been delivered.
Meanwhile, in the past few months, Turkish police have raided and detained about 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, the legislators and 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 said the bill 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 US 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.
Even now, Turkish Legislator Yildirim Kaya, of the country’s main opposition party, said that China has delivered only a third of the 30 million doses it promised by the end of last month.
Turkey is largely reliant on China’s Sinovac vaccine to immunize its population against the virus.
“Such a delay is not normal. We have paid for these vaccines,” Kaya said. “Is China blackmailing Turkey?”
Kaya said he has formally asked the Turkish government about pressure from China, but has not yet received a response.
Turkish and Chinese authorities have said that the extradition bill is not meant to target Uighurs for deportation. Chinese state media called such concerns “smearing.”
Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said in December last year that the vaccine delay was not related to Uighurs.
“We do not use the Uighurs for political purposes, we defend their human rights,” Cavusoglu said.
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 are 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.”
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