A court in the Turkey has rejected a request by Beijing to extradite Uyghur religious teacher Abduqadir Yapchan to China to face “terrorism” charges, his lawyer said, ending years of detention and legal limbo under the threat of harsh Chinese punishment.
A closed-door hearing at the Istanbul Çağlayan Justice Palace on Thursday dismissed his case, citing lack of credible evidence, his lawyer said.
“China’s request to extradite Mr. Abduqadir was rejected by the judge,” said his lawyer, Mehmet Anas.
“In a previous trial, Mr. Abduqadir was banned from traveling abroad, and the decision was reversed. Mr. Abduqadir is now free,” added the lawyer.
“In order to disturb my peaceful life and derail the East Turkestan cause, China has pressured other governments with slanderous terrorist charges against me,” the 62-year-old Yapchan told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Today, all the slander of China, that is, the deception against me and against the people of East Turkestan, has been thwarted,” he added. “We must work together against China’s genocide and crimes against humanity in East Turkestan.”
East Turkestan is the name Uyghurs use for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in western China, where they wish to re-establish the independent state that briefly existed before the founding of Communist China in 1949.
Yapchan, who has been granted political asylum by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and has been living in Istanbul for 18 years, escaped from China in 1998 on a fake passport obtained so he could travel to Saudi Arabia to participate in the Haj, a pilgrimage undertaken by devout Muslims.
In the years since the native of Kashgar left China, repression of Uyghurs has dramatically worsened, with the incarceration of some 1.8 million Turkic Muslims in internment camps since 2017 and other policies prompting the U.S. government and several Western parliaments this year to designate abuses in the XUAR part of a state-backed genocide.
Hidayatullah Oguzkhan, president of the International Union of East Turkestan Organizations and the President of the East Turkestan Education and Cooperation Association, said the court decision was significant for Uyghurs facing the threat of an extradition pact between China and Turkey, home to 50,000 Uyghurs.
“The decision means that Turkey is moving in the direction of East Turkestan, taking into account the values and sensitivities of the people of East Turkestan,” he told RFA.
“Four years ago, China had asked Turkey to extradite Mr. Abduqadir Yapchan by falsely accusing him of being a ‘terrorist’ and he has been on trial several times during those four years,” said Oguzkhan.
“Today’s court rejected China’s request to extradite Abduqadir Yapchan. All restrictions have been lifted and his travels outside Turkey will no longer be hampered with this decision to close the case,” he added.
China had accused Yapchan of being part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that the U.S. State Department dropped from its list of terrorist organizations last October, because, it said “for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.”
China regularly refers to Uyghur activists in exile as members of ETIM as part of a bid to discredit their claims of ongoing rights abuses in the region and to support its narrative that Uyghurs in the XUAR lead happy lives under Beijing’s rule, while ETIM promotes separatism and directs attacks within China from abroad.
Yapchan was arrested by Turkish police on August 31, 2016 on charges of being a “terrorist” and had since been under detention or house arrest.
Ibrahim Ergin, a lawyer, said the Chinese government’s extradition demands in 2016 and 2019 were supported with a five-page indictment, but in June 2020, China filed a 68-page indictment.
“The Turkish court insisted that the Chinese side’s accusations could not be substantiated, and asked the Chinese to provide more evidence, but the Chinese side did not provide any evidence,” he said.
Beijing blacklisted Yapchan in 2003 when it placed him on the country’s first list of alleged terrorists and terrorist organizations. All of the 11 suspected terrorists and five organizations on the list were identified as “East Turkestan” terrorist organizations, such as ETIM, or individuals.
Yapchan spent 12 years in Chinese prisons as he was jailed on three separate occasions for taking a class at an underground religious school, spreading separatist ideology and illegally possessing a copy of the guilty verdict handed out by a Chinese court for another Uyghur activist.
Reported by Arslan Tash and translated by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.