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International relations

Turkey accused of trading Uighurs for Chinese vaccine

Sinovac shots begin after delays, stirring suspicion of 'under the table' deal

Bekir Bozdag, then Turkey’s justice minister, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sign the extradition treaty in May 2017, with Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Xi Jinping presiding.   © Anadolu Agency

ISTANBUL -- Turkey started mass inoculation with China's Sinovac vaccine on Thursday. But after its order for the vaccine faced delay after delay, some started to question if the country was being punished for dragging its feet in ratifying an extradition treaty it had signed with Beijing that could affect its Uighur diaspora.

The Turkish Health Ministry's medicine regulator said on Wednesday that it has granted emergency use authorization to Sinovac Biotech's vaccine. Mass inoculations began Thursday, starting with the elderly and health care workers.

Turkey signed a contract for 50 million doses of Sinovac Biotech's vaccine, which should arrive by the end of February. It has so far received 3 million doses as its first batch, but only after three delays totaling around three weeks. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said a request for more was turned down by Sinovac.

The delay of the first batch in December prompted a phone call between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. By the end of the month, a few days before the first batch of vaccines was due to be sent to Turkey, Beijing unexpectedly announced it had ratified the extradition treaty with Turkey.

Turkey signed the extradition treaty with China in 2017 when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Initiative Forum. China had been asking Turkey to cooperate on the Uighur issue, and it is largely believed that Turkey signed the treaty to solicit investment from China. The treaty was sent to parliament in 2019 and is awaiting ratification.

The move last month prompted members of the opposition parties in Turkey to question if China was withholding the vaccines to pressure Turkey into also ratifying the treaty.Yildirim Kaya of the opposition the Republican People's Party questioned the government, saying, "Are the allegations that China is postponing vaccine shipments to pressure Turkey into ratifying the extradition treaty true?" Opposition politicians have vowed to push back on ratification when parliament reconvenes on Jan. 26.

Uighur political groups estimate that there are around 50,000 Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people, who live in Turkey, some of whom have gained citizenship. The ratification of the treaty would be a huge cause of concern for those Uighurs who have not yet received Turkish citizenship as they face the possibility of being sent back to China, where they are persecuted.

Turkey is home to the largest Uighur diaspora, whose language is related to Turkish, outside of Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, according to associate professor Omer Kul of the Istanbul University Institute of Turkish Studies. He said that Turkey's Uighurs are also the most politically and vocally active, with more than 45 associations and foundations focusing on Uighur causes.

China is facing international criticism over reports it has imprisoned around 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in vast labor camps in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in the west of the country that it claims are "re-education" facilities. China denies accusations of imprisonment and claims it is fighting domestic terrorism and separatism.

At a news conference at the end of December, Cavusoglu said ratification of the treaty would only be "routine" and strongly denied claims Uighurs would be deported to China. He said, "China had such demands but we have not taken such steps." He added, "Vaccines and East Turkestan or Uighur Turks have no relation at all."

Many Uighurs and Turkish people call Xinjiang "East Turkestan."

A Turkish parliamentary source who asked not to be named said that the treaty was low priority for parliament but also admitted, "I do not know how politics will evolve when the general assembly reconvenes on Jan. 26."

Associate professor Timucin Koprulu from the law faculty of Atilim University, who specializes in criminal law, said that local regulations will provide Uighurs some protection.

"Even if the extradition treaty is ratified, it is unlikely for Turkey to extradite Uighurs back to China as such requests will be challenged in Turkish courts," he said. He also pointed out that Turkey is a signatory to the European Court of Human Rights, which in the past ruled that it will not allow Uighurs to be deported.

Erkin Ekrem, vice president of Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, said that China's aim was "to give a message to the people of East Turkestan in China that they can be brought back from Turkey even if they escape."

He said that China had already won by applying psychological pressure on Uighurs with this treaty, but that the group is lobbying Ankara to stop the ratification process. Erkin said that Turkey was trying not to antagonize China by banning some high-ranking members of the World Uyghur Congress, including President Dolkun Isa, from entering the country.

The government is also keen to keep the peace at home. The country is ruled by an alliance of religiously conservative and ethnically Turkish nationalist political parties that are sympathetic to Uighurs.

Professor Selcuk Colakoglu, director of the Turkish Center of Asia Pacific Studies, said that the plight of the Uighurs resonates strongly with voters who may view ratification as "selling out," making it an even harder decision for politicians.

Colakoglu said, however, that Foreign Minister Cavusoglu's latest remarks and China's ratification of the treaty suggests a tacit understanding between the two sides that Turkey must proceed.

"The ruling coalition is now trying to gauge the level of opposition within the parliament, society as well as possible reactions from the U.S. and European Union. The parliament may hold ratification for a couple of months," Colakoglu said. But the writing may already be on the wall.

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