A Uyghur design director working for a Chinese locomotive company in Turkey was arrested by Chinese authorities during a family visit to Xinjiang, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Tuesday, citing company employees and his lawyer.
Qahar Eli, 39, left Turkey on March 27 for a month-long trip to visit his parents in Turpan, Xinjiang. Eli was assured by his employer, CRRC Zhuzhou Locomotive Co., that he would be able to return to Turkey after the visit.
This arrest adds to the increasing international scrutiny over China’s treatment of Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region.
When Radio Free Asia reached out to Eli’s employer, based in China’s Hunan province, a staffer confirmed his captivity, labeling it as a criminal case.
“You should ask the police authorities. Given that his situation is now a criminal case, you would need to reach out to the police department,” the staffer was quoted by RFA as saying.
Another employee from the company’s human resources department revealed that they had lost contact with Eli for several months due to his detention, according to the RFA report.
Eli’s lawyer Wadat, who provided only one name, told RFA that Eli’s three children have not yet enrolled in school in Xinjiang and that his wife is currently staying with her parents in Turpan.
Eli moved to Turkey around 2010 after completing his studies at the Beijing Institute of Education. He learned Turkish and initially worked as a translator for CRRC Zhuzhou Locomotive’s local subsidiary. He was later promoted to design director and oversaw projects in İstanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
The company specializes in high-speed electric locomotives and operates in more than 50 countries, making it a significant player in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
This arrest occurs amid increasing calls by Uyghur rights groups for China to be held accountable for its treatment of the minority group in Xinjiang. Eli had previously visited China after 2017, when the crackdown on Uyghurs intensified, but never faced detention until this trip, a friend who requested anonymity for safety reasons told RFA.
Authorities in Lükchün village and Pichan county, where Eli originally hails from, declined to comment on the case when RFA reached out to them.
Despite living in Turkey for over a decade, Eli kept a low profile within the Uyghur community, maintaining relationships only with a few classmates living abroad, according to a friend.
Wadat told RFA that Eli’s arrest could have stemmed from complaints from his Chinese colleagues.
“I believe that the integration of a Chinese Uyghur into Turkish society to this extent also upset the Chinese side,” Wadat was quoted by RFA as saying.
Officials in Turkey at the ministerial level, whom Eli had relationships with, have refrained from speaking on the matter due to concerns about China’s potential response, according to the RFA report.
This comes amid criticism and concerns raised by various international bodies and countries, including the United States and the European Union, over China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Parliaments in several countries have passed non-binding motions describing China’s actions as genocide, including Canada, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Lithuania and France.
China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities has drawn international condemnation, with human rights groups estimating that some 1 million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily incarcerated in a network of prison camps in Xinjiang.
Beijing denies all allegations of abuse of Uyghurs and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.
Turkey has been a destination for thousands of Uyghurs fleeing China and home to a sizable Uyghur diaspora. But a Turkey-China extradition treaty signed in 2017 that is still awaiting ratification by the Turkish parliament led to fears that it could be used to target Uyghurs in Turkey.