Ekber Imin is serving a 25-year prison sentence in China’s Xinjiang region.
By Jilil Kashgary
A photo of Uyghur businessman Ekber Imin's passport.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener
Fraudsters in Turkey were foiled in their attempt to steal millions of dollars from a Turkish bank account belonging to a prominent Uyghur businessman serving a lengthy prison sentence in China’s far-western Xinjiang region, Uyghurs with knowledge of the situation said.
The criminals used fake documents to try to transfer 225 million Turkish lira (U.S. $16 million) from the bank account of Ekber Imin, a 54-year-old Uyghur real estate developer known by the nickname “Akbar Skyscraper” in his hometown of Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian), according to Turkish media reports.
Imin, whose name in Chinese is Aikebaier Yiming, was the head of the Guzel Makan (Beautiful Land) Real Estate firm and several other companies in Hotan. He went missing in mid-2018 and was later confirmed to be jailed on charges including “extremism,” along with two of his brother and at least 20 of his employees, official sources told RFA in a previous report.
In January 2020, RFA reported that Imin had been sentenced by Chinese authorities in 2018 to 25 years in prison for having foreign contacts and spreading extremism by incorporating ethnic and religious elements in the buildings he developed.
While investigating Imin’s whereabouts, RFA learned from publicly available records that Guzel Makan, which also had dealings with “foreign entities,” was established in 2007 and had total combined assets of 13.3 million yuan (U.S. $1.9 million).
Chinese authorities arrested Imin in 2018 and imprisoned him, as they have done to other prominent Uyghur businesspeople amid an intensified crackdown the mostly Muslim ethnic minority group that began in 2017. Authorities usually claim that the businesspeople have trade or financial ties with foreign terrorists or terrorist groups.
The phony documents used by the would-be thieves indicated that Imin agreed to transfer money to their bank account, according to reports by pro-government media in Turkey. RFA was not able to obtain the court documents because the case still under investigation.
Imin’s second wife who lives in Turkey became suspicious and notified judiciary authorities after the fraudsters contacted her to try to obtain information, thereby preventing the transfer form taking place, Turkish media reported.
The Turkish prosecutor general’s office, which began investigating the incident, determined that Imin’s signatures on documents submitted to the bank by the fraudsters and their lawyers had been forged after they compared samples of his signature on real estate documents to the ones on the bank papers.
Turkish prosecutors said that China’s judiciary and the Chinese Embassy in Ankara helped them with the investigation, according to the media reports.
The embassy told the prosecutor’s office that Imin had returned to China and was still there, and that he had not consented to anyone representing him since 2015. The embassy also said that Imin did not know the individuals who claimed he owed them money and tried to get the 225 million lira from his Turkish bank account.
Though the prosecutor’s office froze Imin’s account, the involvement of Chinese officials in the matter has raised concerns among other Uyghurs living in Turkey, worried about China’s long authoritative reach beyond its borders.
Lawyers who work on Uyghur refugee cases have said that only Imin’s legal heirs or other blood relatives would be able to transfer money from his bank account.
Abdulehet Udun, a Uyghur activist living in Turkey and Imin’s former business partner who used to handle the real estate mogul’s money transfers, said that now no one can access Imin’s money unless they are immediate relatives and have been authorized by Imin.
“The good news is that now no one can take his money and neither can China,” said Udun, who is also head of the Konya branch of the Satuk Bughrahan Science-Cultural Foundation, Uyghur cultural and education group based in Istanbul.
Although the lawyers involved in the crime are Turkish, the fraudsters themselves could be Uyghurs, he said.
“What we know who about who was involved in this case is that they all are Turkish lawyers, but behind this could be Uyghurs because he did not have any business relations with local Turks,” Udun said. “Only the Uyghurs knew he had so much money and knew that he had transferred money to Dubai and Turkey.”
Abdullah Tikic, an attorney who represents Uyghur refugees in Turkey, told RFA on Feb. 14 that it is likely that China will get Imin while he is in prison to designate representative to handle his bank account in Turkey and obtain the money.
If Imin’s legitimate heir is his wife, then he could have summoned her to court if he had been in Turkey and proved that he was married, but that is not the case now, he said.
“Even if the man were here without his marriage certificate, if they had a child or children, the children would have been given a DNA test, and then they would be legally entitled to the money, Tikic said. “He has no choice but to send someone from China as a representative. Otherwise, the money will remain in the Turkish bank.’
Tikic, who represents Uyghurs in Turkey with substantial amounts of money still in China, said that if China forces Imin to appoint a representative, the money will be returned to China, and his family in Turkey likely not get it.
The attorney said that other Uyghurs in Turkey fear that they may never be able to reclaim money they left in Chinese banks and could not take with them when they left Xinjiang.
“The most difficult part of the issue is that many Uyghurs in Turkey who are struggling financially had assets and money in China, but could not bring their money to Turkey,” he told RFA “And to do that successfully, the Chinese judiciary has to be involved.”
Such procedures are lengthy affairs require formalities in both China and Turkey depending on whether the money was deposited in the name of a company or an individual, he said.
Imin’s case was reported in Turkish media around the time that Turkey and China had signed a cooperation agreement on anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing on Dec. 30, 2021.
The agreement, which requires all parties to provide each other with information on the financial activities of specific individuals and companies involved in any crimes, sparked concern among Uyghur human rights groups about the financial and economic security of Uyghurs in Turkey.
Though the cooperative agreement does not impose any absolute obligations on Turkey, it is still dangerous for Uyghurs living in Turkey, Tikic said.
“Economically speaking, it is dangerous,” he said.
“It is not clear what information and about whom Turkey has already provided,” he said. “What I mean is that Turkey doesn’t have an obligation to provide information on people if their information is related to public order and the interest of the country.”
Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.