A group of retired academics and civil servants were not allowed to visit Urumqi, the seat of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region of China and were forced to leave the country. The 15 Turkish nationals making up the group said yesterday that they simply wanted to visit the city where the ethnic Uighur population is concentrated but that the Chinese authorities denied their entrance despite the group having green passports, a type of Turkish passport granting visa-free travel to China. Though they were not given any reason for deportation, they claimed some officials told them their visit was prevented because they were affiliated with the Türk Ocakları (Turkish Hearths), a nationalist group critical of China's treatment of the Uighur community.
Speaking to reporters at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport, the group said they were detained for 10 hours and subjected to inhumane treatment by Chinese police officers who strip searched some of the group and forced women to remove their headscarves.
Mehmet Aydın, a representative of the travel agency that took the group to Urumqi, said he was the only one in the group who had a visa because the tourists did not need them. "For some reason, they did not allow the people accompanying me into Urumqi. Then, they imposed a ban on me as well. They seized our passports and kept us waiting for hours. They told us we were linked to the Turkish Hearths and that they cannot allow us in," Aydın said. He did not confirm they were associated with the Turkish Hearths. He said they decided to leave the country and boarded the first flight to nearby Kazakhstan.
Kadir Tosun, a member of the group, said they were on a 12-day trip to China and confronted pressure by police at the airport. "They strip searched us and security guards followed us everywhere in the airport - even to the bathroom. It was insulting. I condemn the Chinese officials," he said.
Professor Ramazan Demir, a retired academic, said the ban had no reasonable excuse. He said they did not do anything "against the Chinese regime" and thought they would be allowed since they were not asked for visas. "We could accept if they simply did not allow us in but they kept us waiting there for hours, like we were hostages. They followed our every move," he said. Demir claimed they were forced to board a plane to Kazakhstan's Almaty. Turkey and China maintain close relations but certain groups in Turkey are critical of Beijing regarding what they see as the oppression of the Muslim community in Xinjiang. China denies the allegations of oppression and says the religious freedom of the community is not being violated.
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