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April 16, 2024
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Turkish media reveal identities of alleged spies for China

An alleged spy for China living in Istanbul evaded detection by Turkish authorities for years, Sadiq Memeteziz’s undercover work taking him to Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria and Xinjiang in China’s far-west, Turkish media reports said, citing official documents.

Memeteziz, or Shadeke Maimaitiaizazi in Chinese, was one of six arrested on Feb. 20 for allegedly spying for China, Turkey’s Habertürk newspaper and TV channel said Wednesday.

Habertürk revealed the identities of four the six men arrested earlier this week, indicating they met with Chinese intelligence officials in Saudi Arabia. 

The media reports didn’t identify the ethnicity of the men, but Radio Free Asia has confirmed that they are all Uyghurs. One of the six, named Ehmetjan, was later released. A seventh one is still at large and wanted by police.

The suspects are accused of spying on prominent Uyghurs and Uyghur associations in Turkey and passing the information to Chinese intelligence officers. The arrests follow a probe by the Istanbul chief prosecutor’s Terrorism and Organized Crime Investigation Bureau, media reports said.

If they are indeed shown to have spied for China, the case would illustrate the lengths that Beijing will go to gather information on Uyghurs abroad as part of its transnational repression.

Uyghur diaspora

With roughly 50,000 Uyghurs living in Turkey — the largest Uyghur émigré population outside Central Asia — the Muslim-majority country has become a focus for Chinese espionage.

Radio Free Asia in February 2023 reported on how the Chinese government’s efforts to coerce Uyghurs to gather information on each other undermines trust and can dampen social and cultural gatherings, preventing Uyghur refugees from rebuilding their communities abroad.

In the past, Turkey offered Uyghurs a safe place to live outside China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is the only Turkic and Muslim country that has consistently raised the issue of the plight of Uyghurs at the United Nations and in bilateral talks with China.

So this crackdown on alleged spies for China represents a shift on Turkey’s part.

The Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office would not comment on the ongoing investigation. RFA could not reach the Chinese Embassy in Ankara for comment.

Family is shocked

Memeteziz’s son, who lives in Istanbul, told RFA that he does not believe his father is a criminal, and that it is premature to call him such until judicial authorities issue a verdict.

“We also recently came across the news and were shocked by it,” said the son, who declined to be named for fear of retribution. “It was a mix of sadness and disbelief, as we never imagined such a thing could happen.”

The son said he has lived apart from his father for two-and-a-half years, balancing work and studies, and that they occasionally checked in with each other. 

“As of now, we haven’t received any updates from the police or the judicial bodies,” he said. “There was no concrete evidence or confirmation, and judicial bodies haven’t said anything like what was reported in the news reports yet. All we’ve heard is that he was arrested.”

“Personally, I find this hard to believe because he has been running his own business for over 20 years,” the son added. “He has his own brand and products, and even when we lived together, he focused on his business and trade with Central Asia. Politics was never his concern due to his business commitments. Hence, I doubt the accuracy of these news reports.” 

Details of alleged activities

Based on an arrest notice issued by the Terrorism and Organized Crime Investigation Bureau, Memeteziz, in his mid- to late 50s, moved to Turkey from Xinjiang – where 11 million Uyghurs live – in the 2000s and had contact with someone from the Ministry of National Security, China’s spy agency. 

He met with an official named Li from the Chinese Communist Party’s Kargilik (Yecheng in Chinese) County Committee in Xinjiang’s Kashgar prefecture, both via phone and in person, the notice said.

According to information from the Turkish National Intelligence Service, it appears that Memeteziz met with Chinese intelligence officials outside Turkey. He traveled to Hong Kong in February 2023, then proceeded to Xinjiang’s Kargilik county, where he had face-to-face meetings with two spies named Li and Alimjan. 

Subsequently, Memeteziz met with Alimjan again in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. To conceal these meetings, Chinese intelligence officials in China and Saudi Arabia provided Memeteziz with two different passports, the Turkish news reports said.

Records indicate that Memeteziz continued to travel to and from Xinjiang with ease, particularly after 2017 when Chinese authorities began detaining Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims en masse in “re-education” camps under the guise of preventing religious extremism and terrorist activities, the reports said.

In 2023, Memeteziz received US$7,000 in Beijing and US$15,000 in Saudi Arabia in exchange for his espionage activities for China, said the reports.

Upon his return to Turkey in August 2023, Memeteziz obtained information about Uyghur organizations and their meetings, and the addresses of prominent Uyghurs living in Turkey. He collected photos and documents to share with Chinese intelligence officials, the news reports said.

The notice from the chief prosecutor’s office said that Memeteziz, under instructions from the Chinese intelligence agency, tried in January 2023 to move to an area where Uyghur religious teacher Abduqadir Yapchan resided, but he could not find accommodations.

China had accused Yapchan of being part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Muslim separatist group that the U.S. State Department dropped from its list of terrorist organizations in October 2020 because of a lack of credible evidence that it continued to exist. Turkish police arrested him in August 2016 on charges of being a “terrorist” and kept him in detention or under house arrest.

In April 2021, a court in Turkey rejected a request by Beijing to extradite Yapchan to China to face terrorism charges, ending years of detention and legal limbo under the threat of harsh Chinese punishment.

Other suspects

The arrest warrant for a second suspect, Hebibulla Ürümci, said he acted as an intermediary in transferring money from a spy named Alimjan to Memeteziz. It also indicated that Ürümci collaborated with Memeteziz in Pakistan and made multiple international trips, according to Turkish media.

Hashim Sabitoğlu, the third man arrested, recently traveled to Saudi Arabia under the guise of making an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims, but instead met with Chinese intelligence operatives. Memeteziz received payments from China through Hashim under the guise of business funds.

Abdullah Nasir, the fourth suspect, was reported to have continuously met with a Chinese intelligence officer named Zhong Xuegang, who identified himself as a Chinese consulate officer. 

Nasir was said to have stayed with Zhong in a hotel in Bursa, a city in Turkey about 92 kilometers (57 miles) south of Istanbul. Nasir was also acquainted with a spy named Alimjan and had a significant number of passport records on file, Turkish media said.

Memeteziz was assigned to gather information about Uyghurs in Syria by using Abdullah, an employee at a Uyghur bakery in Zeytinburnu, a working-class area on the European side of Istanbul. 

When RFA contacted Abdullah – the bakery worker, not the suspect Abdullah Nasir – he said he didn’t know Memeteziz but mentioned someone from Kargilik who visited the bakery every two or three days, trying to gather information about Uyghurs in Turkey and in other countries. 

“He would chat with me while buying naan,” Abdullah said, referring to Uyghur flatbread. “One day, he mentioned wanting to help people in need and asked if there were any religious kids from Kargilik. He asked me to let him know if I knew any. I told him I didn’t know any.”n

“I can’t confirm if he’s a spy because there’s a lot of gossip in the community,” Abdullah said. “I did’t have a close relationship with him. He didn’t live in Zeytinburnu, and he told me he was coming from the Aksaray area to buy naan.”

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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