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Uyghur students in hiding in Egypt speak out

Speaking out: Uyghur students in hiding in Egypt share fears of execution
8 min read
12 July, 2017
In-depth: Uyghur Muslims seeking refuge in Cairo are being forced to return to China, while others have gone into hiding, fearing persecution - or worse - upon deportation.
Uyghurs fear they face imprisonment or worse if they return to China [Getty]
The latest episode in China's international campaign against ethnic Uyghur Muslims is playing out in Egypt's capital, Cairo.

Several Uyghur students in Egypt have been forced to return to China at the behest of the authorities, while dozens more have been detained for deportation - and many others have gone into hiding, fearing that they might face imprisonment or mistreatment on their return. 

The New Arab has been in contact with some of the students currently in hiding, who spoke through secure communications, and only on strict condition of anonymity. 

Many of them are enrolled at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, a prestigious centre for Sunni Islamic thought in the Middle East.

The Uyghur [also spelled as "Uigyur"] are a Turkic ethnic group living primarily in China's Northwestern Xinjiang province. They have long suffered from harsh restrictions on their rights in their homeland, and have been increasingly subject to violent interventions by China's communist government overseas.

The students in Cairo described a life of fear in which they have to move from place to place to avoid raids by the Egyptian authorities.

"We are as frightened as mice in a hole. We don't dare to stay more than one day in the same place," one of the students told The New Arab.

"When sky lights up in the morning, I will try to move to somewhere else," a second student said.

"We have no refuge other than Turkey, but we cannot travel there," another source said. 

The government of Turkey has been supportive of Uyghurs in the past, accepting asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Xinjiang province, eliciting protest from Beijing. 

Uyghur students are being rounded up in Egypt
[Emanuel Stoakes]

Photos shared by activists show ransacked apartments, broken doors and armed, hooded Egyptian police rounding up Uyghur students.

Video footage, seen by The New Arab, appears to show arrested and detained Uyghur handcuffed in the back of a van and collected in a group inside an unidentified building. 

"We number 70 to 80 Ugyurs here. We have been arrested by Arabs. May God protect us," a voice in the film is heard to say.

An Uyghur source in Cairo who asked not to be identified, recalled seeing "guys wearing black uniforms" arresting his friends. Photographs shared by activists online purporting to document raids show armed and masked police, ransacked apartments and doors that appear to have been smashed open.

"Some Uyghurs went to ask for their [friends'] whereabouts and got arrested too," the source continued.

"They are not arresting all of us. It seems [the Egyptian authorities] have been given a list of people to arrest from the Chinese," another source in hiding in Cairo explained. 

A student told The New Arab that they had been made aware that Chinese officials had come to the police station where their friends were held, and are "preparing to hand them to over to China".

The students are "accused of terrorism", they added.

An additional source, who replied to questions sent remotely, said "the police took all of our fingerprints and asked us if we joined the East Turkestan movement. They showed us some photographs of some members of the so-called ETM and asked if we knew them. It seems like we are in deep trouble".

The Turkestan Islamic Movement are a separatist organisation linked to deadly bomb attacks across Xinjiang province over recent years; they are designated a terrorist outfit by several countries, including the UK and the United States.

The sources that The New Arab spoke to vehemently denied any links with the group.

"The Chinese accuse us of terrorism when in fact they are the terrorists," one student responded via WhatsApp. "All we have done is study our religion," he added.

An "urgent action" press release issued by Amnesty cited similar allegations, made by activists, that detained Uyghur were being held in the Chinese embassy "where Chinese security officials reportedly questioned and forced them to sign documents declaring their membership in the Turkistan Islamic Movement".

We have for a decade tracked what happens to some of the Uyghurs who are forcibly returned to China, some of whom have been disappeared, tortured, or even executed on questionable charges in a deeply politicised legal system

Amnesty's East Asia Director Nicholas Bequelin told The New Arab that such accusations, often unfounded, were nothing new. "Beijing has deftly used the counterterrorism card to justify its actions, regularly leveling unsubstantiated accusations or involvement with terrorist groups to gain cooperation from third countries," he said.

"Uyghurs studying, working or living abroad have long been a target of Beijing's efforts to monitor, infiltrate, intimidate, and silence individuals or groups that may be critical of Chinese rule in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the treatment of Uyghurs in general," he added.

The Ugyhur students in Cairo said they were terrified of what would happen to them if they return to China.

"Of course we are afraid, because we know the fate of those who return to China," one of them said.

Another student said they feared "going to jail, or, if not, going to a [forced] political re-education course, which is another kind of imprisonment", in China.

The students' fears of mistreatment are well-founded, according to Human Rights Watch. "We have for a decade tracked what happens to some of the Uyghurs who are forcibly returned to China, some of whom have been disappeared, tortured, or even executed on questionable charges in a deeply politicised legal system," the organisation's China Director Sophie Richardson told The New Arab.

Sporadic attacks by a separatist insurgency in Xinjiang province and fears of radicalisation have been used as a pretext for increasingly severe restrictions on the rights of Uyghur. 

State media has in the past dubbed the campaign against the separatists a "people's war on terrorism"; yet the state has imposed restrictions in the name of this struggle that go far beyond targeted security operations against the insurgents.

Family members of the students in Egypt have been held hostage in order to encourage them to obey orders to return home

Chinese authorities have banned expressions of religious identity - including long beards, the burqa and, in some cases, prevented the practice of fasting during Ramadan. The use of "extremist" religious baby names has even been prohibited

And now family members of the students in Egypt have been held hostage in order to encourage them to obey orders to return home, according to reports.

The students in hiding said they were convinced they would face imprisonment - or worse - if they returned to China.

"Some [Uyghur students] have already gone back of their own free will. Some of them are in prison and others are studying political courses," a student said. "We didn't return before the deadline, so we are definitely going to jail if we go back," he observed.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, indicated that such concerns were justified. "The Chinese authorities will no doubt subject these students to a thorough political interrogation to find out what they did, who they associated with, what they studied and any other information that would fit the Chinese political screen to determine whether the students are loyal to Beijing or have somehow been corrupted," he said.

"Those students who are not able to reassure China's concerns will end up in prison on bogus charges, or at best, live a life facing restrictions and state surveillance."

China appears to have been emboldened by a relative lack of diplomatic resistance to its abuses against the Uyghur in the past, Amnesty's Bequelin told The New Arab

Egypt, he said, "is seeking closer relations with China and is under some pressure for its own human rights record seem keen to endear itself with Beijing".

They have cooperated despite the fact that Egypt is party to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and is "obliged not to expel or return individuals to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", he added. 

Several lucrative agreements have been struck between the two nations, including an investment deal worth $20 billion over a decade

Egypt has grown closer to China under the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who was elevated to the position of president following a coup d'etat in 2013. 

Several lucrative agreements have been struck between the two nations, including an investment deal worth $20 billion over a decade with the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China - and an even bigger agreement in which state-owned developers will construct a new capital city. Beijing is also poised to invest heavily in Egypt's strategic Suez Canal

Meanwhile, this year, China has boosted its surveillance capabilities against the population of Xinjiang province, going so far as to require drivers in the region to install satellite navigation systems that can be used to monitor their movements, while parts of Xinjiang have been turned into a "security state" in which police presence has been increased, according to reports

Egyptian and Chinese officials were approached for comment but did not respond.

However, Egypt's official MENA state agency said that the "Egyptian authorities didn't target Uyghur" but simply wanted to "review their residence papers".

The students remain in hiding. 

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist specialising in human rights stories who divides his time between New Zealand and Asia.

Follow him on Twitter: @EmanuelStoakes

Assed Baig is a UK-based journalist.