BEIJING — The Turkish government has called on China to close its indoctrination centers holding ethnic Uighurs, marking a rare instance of a major Muslim country joining a mounting international chorus condemning the detention of up to 1 million Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang.
The statement marks a turnaround for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, which has been notably silent about China’s treatment of Uighurs despite growing international media coverage and pressure from Turkish opposition parties since 2017.
In a statement Saturday, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the reintroduction of internment camps and the systematic assimilation of Uighur Turks represent “a great shame for humanity.”
“It is no longer a secret that more than 1 million Uighur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing,” Aksoy said.
The ministry said it “learned with deep sorrow” of the death of renowned Uighur folk poet Abdurehim Heyit, who was in Chinese custody. It added it would “commemorate Heyit and those who lost their lives defending Turkish and Muslim identity.”
China’s embassy in Ankara responded to the statement with fury, saying its internment program was designed to curb extremism and terrorism, threats that Turkey shares with China. It rejected Turkey’s remarks as “completely against the truth.”
In what could prove an embarrassment for the Turkish government, Chinese state media posted video footage online Sunday that purportedly shows Heyit alive.
Uighur activists applauded Turkey for speaking out, but many question why it is only now coming to their defense. Tahir Imin, a Washington-based activist, said he and others provided documentation of China’s incarceration of Uighurs to the Turkish government for more than a year without response.
“We hope the Turkish government will continue its support of the Uighurs’ basic human rights, as the West has been doing, and try to do more,” Imin said.
The Turkish statement came weeks before the country heads to polls in nationwide local elections.
Erdogan has styled himself as a leader of the Muslim world and a defender of the world’s Turkic peoples. In 2009, he described China’s crackdown on Uighurs in the wake of ethnic riots in Xinjiang as a “genocide,” infuriating Beijing.
But Turkey’s ties with China warmed significantly after 2016, when Erdogan faced a failed coup and a chill in relations with the West. The following year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a visit to Beijing that Turkey would help China seize Uighur extremists, alarming Uighur activists and Turkish nationalists who view the ethnic minority as their Turkic kin.
Tahir Hamut, a Uighur film producer and poet in exile in Washington, said he heard from friends Saturday that Heyit was alive.
“The Uighur people had always hoped Turkey would adopt this posture, and finally it has,” Hamut said. “But for the Turkish government to make statements without the relevant proof about Heyit is surprising. China will use this to refute Turkey’s criticism. That’s unfortunate.”