Saudi authorities should immediately clarify the status of two Chinese Muslim Uyghur men arrested in Saudi Arabia on November 20, 2020, and disclose the basis for their detentions, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. The organization said the Saudi authorities should not forcibly return the men to China, where they are at serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture.
The arrests occurred on the eve of the G20 leaders’ summit, hosted virtually by Saudi Arabia on November 21 and 22. Human Rights Watch has previously called on G20 member countries to press Saudi Arabia to end its unrelenting assault on fundamental freedoms, including jailing and harassing public dissidents and human rights activists, unlawful attacks on civilians in Yemen, and flouting international calls for accountability for the murder by state agents of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Saudi Arabia’s attempts to seek positive publicity through hosting the G20 would be severely undercut if it detains and forcibly returns fellow Muslims back to unbridled persecution in China,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi authorities should immediately disclose the status of the Uyghur detainees and clarify why they arrested them.”
Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur activist in touch with the Uyghur community in Saudi Arabia, told Human Rights Watch that Saudi authorities detained Hemdullah Abduweli (or Aimidoula Waili in pinyin on his Chinese passport), 52, a Uyghur Muslim religious scholar, on the evening of November 20 in Mecca along with his friend Nurmemet Rozi (or Nuermaimaiti on his Chinese passport). Ayup said that Rozi managed to contact a family member to say that they are being held in Jeddah’s Bureiman prison and are “in danger.” Both men are residents of Turkey.
Abduweli arrived in Saudi Arabia in February to perform a religious pilgrimage. He had been in hiding since he gave a speech to the Uyghur community there in which he encouraged Uyghurs and Muslims to pray about conditions in Xinjiang and to “fight back the Chinese invaders…using weapons,” said another source who spoke to Abduweli.
In early November, Abduweli spoke to Middle East Eye, saying he feared that Chinese authorities had sent a request to Saudi Arabia to detain and deport him. Middle East Eye posted photos of Abduweli’s Chinese passport, Turkish residency card, and Saudi visa information.
The Uyghur activist Ayub said that he had previously documented five cases of Uyghurs forcibly deported by Saudi Arabia back to China between 2017 and 2018.
Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims, most of whom live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest. The Chinese government has long been hostile to many expressions of Uyghur identity, and imposed wide-ranging controls – including religious restrictions – over daily life in Xinjiang. Since late 2016, the Chinese government has dramatically escalated repression in Xinjiang as part of ostensible counterterrorism efforts, subjecting the region’s 13 million Turkic Muslims to forced political indoctrination, mass surveillance, and severe movement restrictions. An estimated one million of them have been held in “political education” camps.
Much of this repression targets Uyghurs’ religious practices. Uyghurs are imprisoned and detained for studying the Quran, going on pilgrimages without state approval, wearing religious clothing, and other “abnormal” thoughts or behavior that express “excessive religious fervor.” An estimated 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang, or 65 percent of the total, have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies since 2017.
On a visit to China in February 2019, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, appeared to endorse Chinese government policies in Xinjiang. China’s Xinhua official news agency quoted Mohammed bin Salman stating, “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security…” Saudi Arabia endorsed joint letters in support of China’s policies in Xinjiang at the United Nations in 2019 and again in 2020.
China’s record of arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance of Uyghurs, as well as the absence of judicial independence, raises serious concerns that if deported, Hemdullah Abduweli and Nurmemet Rozi will be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Under customary international law and as a party to the Convention against Torture, Saudi Arabia is obliged to ensure that no one in its custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.
In recent years, there have been multiple incidents of Uyghurs being forcibly returned to China in violation of international law. In July 2017, Egypt detained 62 Uyghurs and deported at least 12 to China. In August 2015, Thailand forcibly returned 220 Uyghurs to China. In December 2012, Malaysia deported six Uyghurs to China. In all cases, Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain any further information from Thai, Malaysian, or Chinese governments as to the deportees’ whereabouts or well-being.
“Mohammed bin Salman’s apparent endorsement of China’s persecution of the Muslim Uyghur community is bad enough, but his government should not play a direct role in it by deporting Uyghur men back to possible arbitrary detention and torture,” Stork said.