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Turkey urges China to respect Uighur rights, close camps

FILE - In this Saturday, July 4, 2015 file photo, Uighurs living in Turkey and their supporters, some carrying coffins representing Uighurs who died in China's far-western Xinjiang Uighur region, chant slogans as they stage a protest in Istanbul, against what they call as oppression by Chinese government to Muslim Uighurs in the province. In a statement Saturday Feb. 9, 2019, Turkey's foreign ministry has called China's treatment of its minority Uighurs "a great cause of shame for humanity." The Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said it's "no longer a secret" that China has arbitrarily detained more than a million Uighurs in "concentration camps." (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey has called China’s treatment of its minority Uighurs “a great cause of shame for humanity.”

In a statement Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said it’s “no longer a secret” that China has arbitrarily detained more than a million Uighurs in “concentration camps.” He said the Turkic Muslim population faced pressure and “systematic assimilation” in western China.

Aksoy said Turkey has shared with China its position on “all levels” and urged authorities to close the detention facilities and respect human rights.

The minister said Turkey had also learned of the death in prison of famed Uighur musician and poet Abdurehim Heyit, who had been sentenced to eight years over one of his songs.

“This tragedy has further reinforced the reaction of the Turkish public opinion toward serious human rights violations committed in the Xinjiang region,” Aksoy said.

“We expect this legitimate response to be taken into account by the Chinese authorities. We respectfully commemorate Abdurehim Heyit and all our kinsmen who lost their lives defending their Turkish and Muslim identity,” Aksoy said.

Heyit was a master of the dutar, a type of two-stringed instrument with a long neck that is found in Iran and throughout Central Asia. His detention was considered indicative of China’s determination to crack down on Uighur intellectuals and cultural figures in an effort some say to eradicate a separate Uighur language and identity.

Heyit’s death could not be independently confirmed.

China’s Embassy in Ankara called Aksoy’s comments “completely unacceptable” in a lengthy response posted on its website that defended its policies in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland.

“Both China and Turkey face the arduous task of fighting terrorism. We are opposed to maintaining double standards on the question of fighting terrorism,” said the statement, attributed to an embassy spokesman.

“We hope the Turkish side will have a correct understanding of the efforts made by China to legally deploy measures to effectively fight terrorism and extremism, withdraw its false accusations and take measures to eliminate their harmful effects,” it said.

Beijing has intensified a security clampdown on Uighurs that was put in place after a bloody 2009 riot. Droves of Uighurs have fled, many traveling to Turkey, where the language and culture are similar to that in Xinjiang.

After months of denying their existence, Chinese authorities under increasing outside pressure acknowledged the system of camps, terming them vocational training centers. They have provided little or no information on how many are interned within them and how long they are being held.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had once accused China of “genocide” but has since established closer diplomatic and economic relations with Beijing.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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