Turkey detains 6 people suspected of spying for China

ANKARA — Turkish authorities on Tuesday detained six people suspected of spying on behalf of Chinese intelligence in a rare public move against China.

One leader of a Uyghur umbrella group characterized it as a result of rising Chinese espionage activities against members of the oppressed Muslim community who are taking exile in Turkey.

While six have been detained, Turkish authorities are still searching for one more individual, the state-run Anadolu News Agency reported.

The suspects were rounded up in simultaneous raids in Istanbul for allegedly “collecting information” about prominent members of the Uyghur diaspora and their institutions based in Turkey with the intention of passing it on to Chinese intelligence units, according to the report. Authorities did not confirm the nationalities of the detained.

Turkey is home to one of the world’s largest populations of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority of Turkic origin who live primarily in China’s Xinjiang region. 

Ties between Ankara and Beijing took a positive turn after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reelection in May last year. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, met with his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, as well as Erdogan during a July visit to Turkey aimed at strengthening economic cooperation between their two countries.

Yet, China’s treatment of its Uyghur population, estimated at around 12 million, has long been a contentious issue in Ankara-Beijing ties.

In 2009 while prime minister, Erdogan had styled himself as the leading champion of Uyghurs’ rights, accusing China of committing “genocide” in its treatment of the Muslim minority. He later toned down his criticism and became the first Turkish prime minister to visit Beijing in more than two decades, in 2012.

In 2019, Turkey raised the issue of the Uyghurs’ plight at the UN Human Rights Council, calling on China to respect the groups’ rights, including its freedom of religion. The episode prompted another flare up in Turkish-Chinese bilateral relations. 

In what was widely viewed as in response to the Turkish move at the UN council, China announced the temporary closure of its consulate in the Aegean coastal province of Izmir, which has been poised to be one of the port cities in China’s far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative. The consulate in Izmir remains closed. Turkey continues to try to position itself as a hub in the Chinese trade corridor project aiming to link Asia and Europe. 

The United States and the European Union have accused China of oppressing Uyghurs, incarcerating tens of thousands of its largest Muslim minority in internment camps in an effort to strip them of their Muslim identity.

China denies the accusations, claiming that the camps are designed for combatting separatism and for “training” to de-radicalize Islamist extremists. 

The Turkey-based Uyghur activist Abduresid Eminhaci said Tuesday’s arrests come amid an “intense uptick” in Chinese espionage activities against Uyghur targets in Turkey.

The detentions, he told Al-Monitor, are “important to address security concerns of roughly 70,000 East Turkestan people residing in Turkey.”

Eminhaci, secretary-general of the International Union of East Turkistan Organizations, an umbrella group representing roughly 20 Uyghur associations in Turkey, said members of the organization and others often have “strange” visitors asking “suspicious” questions or “offering money” in return for commercial information about Uyghur-owned businesses and companies that trade with them.

China’s embassy in Ankara was not available for comment as of writing.

This article has been updated.

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