The mystery of a Turkish poet who may or may not be dead is at the center of a diplomatic crisis over China's crackdown on Muslims

The mystery of a Turkish poet who may or may not be dead is at the center of a diplomatic crisis over China's crackdown on Muslims

china turkey xi abdurehim heyit erdogan

Reuters; CRI Turk via Uyghur Bulletin/Twitter; Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty

A composite image of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish poet Abdurehim Heyit, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

  • Turkey broke its yearslong silence over China's persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority over the weekend and called it "a great shame for humanity."
  • The statement came after the reported death of a Turkish Uighur poet, who the Turkish foreign ministry said had died in a Chinese detention camp in the western region of Xinjiang.
  • China responded by publishing a video appearing to show the poet, Abdurrehim Heyit, saying that he is alive.
  • But the video's visuals and audio don't seem to match up.

The mysterious fate of a Turkish poet, who was previously reported to have died in a Chinese detention camp for a persecuted Muslim minority, is at the center of a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

On Saturday, Turkey broke a yearslong silence over China's unprecedented persecution of its Uighur minority, a mostly Muslim ethnic group living in the western region of Xinjiang.

Chinese authorities have over the past two years - under the guise of counterterrorism - introduced a series of harsh measures on Uighurs in Xinjiang.

The US State Department has accused them of placing up to 2 million residents in prison-like camps, where past detainees say they have to sing patriotic songs to get fed and are cramped into cells so small that they had to sleep and sit down in shifts


xinjiang uighur police

Associated Press/Ng Han Guan

In this Nov. 4, 2017 photo, Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region.

China has routinely denied inflicting physical or psychological damage on Uighurs in these camps. Instead it has referred to them as "reeducation camps" or "free vocational training."

Hami Aksoy, a spokesman for Turkey's foreign ministry, said in a Saturday statement: "The reintroduction of internment camps in the XXIst century and the policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks carried out by the authorities of China is a great shame for humanity."

Aksoy also called the crackdown a "tragedy."

xinjiang uighur pray

Kevin Frayer/Getty

Uighur men pray before a meal during the Corban Festival, also known as Eid al-Adha, in Turpan, Xinjiang, in September 2016.

The mystery of the maybe dead, maybe alive poet

Turkey's statement came in response to recent reports that Abdurrehim Heyit - a Uighur poet and musician who was also a Turkish national - died while being held in one of China's internment camps.

The Turkish government said that Heyit was sentenced to eight years in prison for one of his songs, and that he died during this second year in jail. Turkey did not give details of what was in the song.

But in a bizarre twist of events, Chinese state media on Sunday released a video of a man appearing to be Heyit alongside audio of a man identifying the date - February 10, 2019.

The voice, purportedly his, said in the Uighur language that he is "in good health and [I] have never been abused."

Abdurehim Heyit china turkey uighur

CRI Turk via Uyghur Bulletin/Twitter

A still of a video China released of Abdurehim Heyit, a Turkish poet previously reported to have died in China's internment camps for Uighurs.

The 26-second video, published on the state-run China Radio International's Turkish-language service, shows a man appearing to be Heyit dressed in a monochrome sweater. He stood is standing against what looks like padded wall with a light switch in the background.

The man can be seen moving his mouth, but it appears out of of sync with the audio. Otkur Arslan, a Uighur activist living in the Netherlands, tweeted that, according to the video metadata, the video and audio lengths are different.

Arslan suggested that the discrepancy means someone tampered with the video before it was published.

The audio says: "My name is Abdurrehim Heyit. Today is February 10, 2019. I'm in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating the national laws. I'm now in good health and have never been abused."

You can watch it here:


An unnamed Turkish diplomatic source told Reuters that even if the video was "true," and that Heyit is alive, the foreign ministry stands by its condemnation of China's human rights record against Uighurs.

The source added that Heyit's body language and speech patterns suggest that the testimony might have been coerced, or that the video might have been digitally altered.

Meanwhile Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, told reporters on Monday that the video showed that Heyit "is not only alive, but also very healthy."

Hua also accused Turkey's foreign ministry of "unfairly blaming" China based on "ridiculous lies," and said the country was "extremely wrong and extremely irresponsible."

She said Heyit was detained and investigated for "crimes endangering national security," but did not give any more details and referred further questions to local authorities in Xinjiang. Reuters said Xinjiang ignored its requests for comment.


china uighur protest

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

A protester wears a mask painted with Xinjiang or East Turkestan's flag and tears of blood in Brussels in April 2018.

China is already extra-sensitive about Turkey

The Turkish government has long offered a space for Uighurs to live and protest against China. Beijing, in response, has cracked down extra hard on Uighurs who travel or communicate with people there.

Aksoy said in his Saturday statement: "Our kinsmen and citizens of Uighur origin living abroad cannot get news from their relatives in the region. Thousands of children have been removed from their parents and became orphans."

Abdurahman Tohti, a 30-year-old Uighur man living in Istanbul, told INSIDER last week that he lost contact with his wife and children shortly after they flew to Xinjiang three years ago, before finding his son in a Chinese propaganda video filmed in what looked like a state orphanage.

Read more: This man's family vanished in China's most oppressed region. Last month he saw his son for the first time in 2 years, in a Chinese propaganda video.


recep tayyip erdogan

Ali Unal/AP

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on October 23, 2018.

Turkey has spoken out against China's Muslim crackdown in the past, much to Beijing's ire.

Then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan described ethnic violence in Xinjiang as "a kind of genocide" in 2009, and in 2015 his goverment offered shelter to Uighur refugees fleeing China. China responded by repeatedly threatening to tank the two countries' economic relations.

Many Muslim countries have shied away from criticizing China's Muslim persecution, likely because they feared economic retribution from China or wanted to avoid international scrutiny of their own human rights records. But more and more countries are now opting to speak out.

Uighur activists are nonetheless buoyed by the fact that Turkey has finally spoken out again.


Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist living in Washington, DC, told The New York Times on Sunday: "This is very encouraging for us.

"It gives us strength and hope that the Turkish government can lead the way for the other Muslim nations to bring some more pressure on the Chinese government."