An ethnic Uyghur asylum seeker who applied for protection through the United Nations’ refugee agency has been detained in Dubai, according to the man’s wife, who said she fears he may have been forcibly repatriated to China, where he could face imprisonment, torture, and other forms of punishment.
Huseyin Imintohti was last heard from on Oct. 12, his Turkey-based wife Nigare recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service, days after he sent her text messages indicating he was being sought by police in the United Arab Emirates.
After his application for asylum was accepted by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Dubai on Sept. 1, Imintohti had been spending his days at the office and nights walking the city streets to avoid detention by local authorities, she said, adding that on Oct. 9 he had asked that she “please follow up if you don’t hear from me within three days.”
“My last conversation with him was on Oct. 12, and after 4:22 p.m. local time that day, he never accessed the internet [on his cellphone] again,” said Nigare, who lives with the couple’s three children in Istanbul.
“I believe that is the date of his detention, because prior to that we were in touch nearly every day, as he was unable to sleep without hearing the sound of our new baby's voice.”
Nigare said that soon after her husband’s disappearance, his roommates in Dubai confirmed that he had been detained, but were unable to provide details. She has since been unable to contact them, she added.
“I have no friends or relatives in Dubai, so I can't get any information,” she told RFA.
“Last week, I went to the United Arab Emirates embassy in Istanbul and asked about the case, but they said they had no idea and suggested I speak with the Chinese embassy in Dubai. I called them, but a staffer at the embassy hung up the phone when I mentioned the situation.”
A spokesperson with a UNHCR regional office in Jordan’s capital Amman told RFA they were unauthorized to discuss specific information about asylum seekers, when asked about his whereabouts and the status of his case.
Repeated phone calls to the Chinese embassy in Dubai went unanswered.
Deported from Turkey
Imintohti, who is from Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, relocated to Istanbul in 2013. He married Nigare, who is also from Hotan, shortly after she moved to the city a year later.
The couple rented out units from a small apartment building before closing their property management business and opening a cellphone store in Istanbul’s working class Zeytinburnu district.
According to Nigare, Turkish police took her husband into custody when he attempted to extend his residency permit in January, around the time Chinese authorities launched a campaign ordering Uyghurs living outside of China to return to their hometowns by the end of May.
Imintohti was then sent to an immigration detention center in the seat of eastern Turkey’s Erzurum province, she said, adding that she later learned Chinese authorities had issued an Interpol alert for her husband, which she believes was the reason Turkish authorities arrested him.
Her husband endured a lengthy investigation into his case, during which the couple’s third child was born and he began to develop serious liver problems in detention, she said, leading him to accept deportation on May 26 from Turkey to Dubai, where he sought medical treatment.
But Imintohti mistakenly believed he would be allowed to return to Turkey to reunite with his family six months after he was deported, she said, and only learned later that he could not reenter the country until five years had passed.
China’s consulate in Istanbul refused to issue a passport for the couple’s third child without confirmation of Imintohti’s identity, so the family was unable to relocate to Dubai to join him.
When he realized he would be unable to return to Turkey, her husband applied to the UNHCR in Dubai for asylum from China, Nigare said, and it was while his case was being reviewed that local authorities detained him. His visa for Dubai was valid until Nov. 7, she added.
A Uyghur source in Dubai, who spoke with RFA on condition of anonymity, said that an unidentified person was asking around about Imintohti on Oct. 5, about a week before he is believed to have been arrested.
“I was having lunch at a Uyghur restaurant and a person sitting at the next table, who seemed like he was secret police, showed me a picture of Imintohti, and asked where he was staying,” the source said.
“I said I had no idea, and he went on to ask every Uyghur diner at the restaurant. I haven’t seen or heard of Imintohti since then.”
Imintohti was a former medical student at a university in Zhengzhou, in China’s Henan province, but left school amid pressure by Xinjiang authorities, who his wife said routinely “visited” the campus to interrogate Uyghur students.
Several Uyghurs had “disappeared” from the university while he was in attendance, Nigare said, adding that the experience had contributed to Imintohti’s decision to leave China.
But even when the couple was living abroad, Xinjiang authorities tried to use family members as leverage over them.
“His five brothers in Hotan were jailed and sent to political re-education centers, just because they sent money to us when we lost our property management business [in Istanbul],” she said.
Nigare told RFA she is fearful that Beijing may have pressured Dubai to forcibly deport her husband to China, where she said he is at risk of “long-term imprisonment, torture, and even execution.”
In a statement issued Tuesday accompanying a new report that details the harassment of Uyghurs overseas, Washington-based exile group Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said that as China builds closer security relationships with countries around the world, including in the Middle East, “these countries have used their own security forces to attempt to shut down political activities among Uyghurs in their nations, or even detain and deport Uyghurs living legally in their territory.”
The goal of such harassment is to discourage and disrupt political activism among Uyghurs living abroad, the group said, replicating the system of control that exists in Xinjiang.
“Fear of the consequences of speaking out against the Chinese government follows Uyghurs as they travel or immigrate abroad,” said Omer Kanat, UHRP’s director.
“The governments of nations which host Uyghur populations should push back against Chinese government activities directed against Uyghurs on their soil,” he added.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.