Nearly 20 Uyghur students in Egypt’s capital Cairo are unaccounted for some four months after authorities launched a dragnet targeting members of the ethnic minority at China’s behest, according to two of the young men, who said they endured regular abuse while in detention.
More than 200 Uyghurs, many of them religious students at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Islamic University, have been detained since July 4, rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries, sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service in earlier reports.
Dozens of Uyghurs are believed to have already been deported home to northwest China’s Xinjiang region, where rights groups say they face a serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture.
Last month, Egyptian authorities began releasing the Uyghur students and their family members detained in July and published their names in reports by local media, but 16 of them remain unaccounted for, two young men who were freed on Sept. 13 and 28 told RFA on condition of anonymity, after recently relocating to Turkey.
Among those confirmed missing are Abduweli Hesen, from Korla (in Chinese, Kuerle) city; Muhemmet Ahmet, from Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture; Nurmemet Obul, from Kashgar, Abdureqib, from Aqsu (Akesu) prefecture; and Memet Hajim, from Hotan (Hetian) prefecture, the students said.
The two men, who had travelled to Egypt last year when China relaxed requirements for Uyghurs seeking to obtain passports, had ignored pressure from authorities in Xinjiang to return home to “register” earlier this year, following reports that several Uyghurs who complied with the order were taken into custody upon their return.
They believed themselves to be safe from China’s reach, but on July 4 were rounded up by Egyptian State Security personnel and soldiers while strolling through a district of Cairo that is home to several Uyghur residents and “handled roughly, as if we were criminals who came to Egypt to destroy the country.”
The two men said that they were among 70 Uyghur, Hui, and Salar ethnic minority students from China and their family members who were captured that day and brought to the Qismil Awal district police station for questioning by Bai Kecheng—the Beijing-appointed president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association in Egypt.
After bringing them food and photographing them, Bai and three other Chinese men interrogated the detainees about their Islamic religious activities, such as how often they prayed and how well they knew the Quran.
“In the beginning, the Egyptian police questioned us, but later, officials from the Chinese embassy questioned us,” said one of the two students who spoke to RFA.
“They asked us questions such as, ‘Where did you come from? What are you doing here in Egypt? and What are you studying?’ And they videotaped [our responses].”
The two students said the detainees were sent to prison the following day, where they were “beaten by security guards” and by “cellmates who demanded money” from them, noting that children were among those held.
On July 7, the detainees were dispersed to “various police stations in Cairo” by Egyptian authorities who acknowledged that they were “innocent” and told them they would be released, but 11 days later, they were all moved to the capital’s notorious Tora Prison, the students said.
A total of 94 Uyghur students and their family members were placed in two cells at Tora Prison on July 18, when they were visited by a Uyghur official from the Chinese embassy in Cairo, the students told RFA.
The 16 Uyghur students who remain unaccounted for were blindfolded and brought to the Uyghur official for interrogation at the time, they said, and he questioned them about their finances, connections with Uyghur organizations in exile, and their studies.
Throughout their detention, authorities never once explained the accusations against them, the students said, and prison personnel repeatedly told them that they would be freed “once your embassy gives us the order to release you.”
“It’s hard to take it, when you are locked up without any reason,” one of the two men told RFA, adding that conditions in prison were difficult and food was sparse.
Media reports have quoted officials as denying that Egyptian authorities were targeting Uyghurs and saying that those arrested were brought in for “alleged irregularities in their residency papers,” but Uyghur exile groups and students say the detentions were ordered by China on allegations that they had “joined extremist organizations.”
On Aug. 31 and Sept. 2, Egyptian authorities relocated the Uyghur students and their family members from Tora Prison to jail cells in various police stations throughout the capital, and it was at this time that the 16 students went missing, the sources told RFA. Nearly 80 people are believed to still be held at Tora Prison.
‘They were very cruel’
After being transferred to local jails, the students and their families faced regular harassment, robbery and physical assault from local prisoners, according to the sources.
“Some students became ill and some developed open sores, but the prison guards didn’t care about their condition,” they said.
“Being Muslims, we Uyghurs … thought all other Muslims are like us. However, to our disappointment we didn’t receive kindness from them. They were good at reciting the verses from the Quran, but they were very cruel, and showed no sympathy towards the pain of fellow Muslims.”
The ruling Chinese Communist Party blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in China in recent years, but critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the ethnic group, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
Reported by Abduweli Ayup for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.