Egyptian authorities have released up to 25 of more than 100 Uyghur students from northwestern China’s Xinjiang region who were detained earlier this year in the country’s notorious Tora Prison, though armed police put black hoods on 16 others and took them away, three recently released Uyghurs said.
The three students, who were released in early September, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that they do not know why the 16 were whisked away or whether they were deported to China, though prison guards told them the students were “in trouble.”
One of them was 17 years old, they said.
Egypt’s secret police began detaining Uyghur and ethnic minority Kazakh Muslims from China en masse on July 4, in an operation activists said was requested by Beijing, sources told RFA at the time.
The 200 students, many of them religious students at Cairo’s Islamic Al-Azhar University, were rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries, the sources said.
The Egyptian government has not disclosed the charges, the number of detentions, the whereabouts of the detainees, or whether any were sent back to China.
Repeated efforts by RFA to seek comment from Egyptian authorities have been met with no reply.
Ethnic minority Kazakh Muslims from China were among some 200 ethnic minority holders of Chinese passports targeted in July by Egypt's secret police
The three Uyghur students who were later released said that the detainees were first interrogated by Egyptian security officials, and later by Chinese security officials.
The Egyptian officials gave every Uyghur student a form in Arabic to fill out, though many could not fully comprehend the questions because of their poor Arabic skills and responded “yes” to all items out of fear, they said.
The students were then divided into three categories in prison — red, yellow, and green — according to their interrogation results, answers on the forms, and the contents of their mobile phones, they said.
The ones placed in the green category are those who had legal status in Egypt and were enrolled in Al-Azhar or other Egyptian universities.
The ones in the yellow category had either status issues or were not enrolled in a university, and those in the red category had cell phones with content that Chinese security officials deemed problematic. It was unclear what kind of content was found on their mobile devices.
Prior to the mass detentions, the majority of Uyghur students in Egypt used the Chinese instant messaging service WeChat to communicate with family and friends at home and abroad.
WeChat is an app developed by China’s internet company Tencent, which shares all private user data with the Chinese government.
Many Uyghurs in Xinjiang have gotten in trouble with the Chinese authorities in recent years because of the content on their mobile phones, including the sharing of political and religious content on WeChat.
Police frequently check the mobile phones of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and detain them for possessing unapproved content.
Divided up into jail cells
One recently released Uyghur student in Egypt who spoke on condition of anonymity said that more than 100 Uyghur students were divided into two huge jail cells after they were detained on Aug. 31 and their mobile phones were confiscated.
“We were first interrogated by the Egyptian police, but not tortured or mistreated,” he said. “After the interrogations, they told us that they had detained us because of a Chinese government request that we were ‘terrorists.’”
The police said they could not find any evidence of terrorism after the interrogations and would soon release the students, noting that “this is politics between two countries,” he said.
“In our jail cell, there were 54 students, including me,” he said. “Suddenly fully armed police came in that day and told us in Arabic to face the wall.”
The police handcuffed some of the students and took them away, he said.
“We saw altogether 16 were taken from both cells,” the Uyghur student said. “Later when we asked prison guards where they had been taken, they simply said that they were ‘in trouble.’ These 16 Uyghurs belonged to the red category.”
Another Uyghur student from Al-Azhar University who spoke on condition of anonymity said he was placed into the green category because authorities could not accuse him of any criminal conduct.
The 25 students who were released were all placed into the green category, he said, adding that some in the yellow category may have been released as well.
“This place is no longer safe for any of us now,” he said. “But what worries me most is the fate of 16 who belonged to the red category. There is no sign of them. They simply vanished.”
A third Uyghur student who fled to Turkey soon after his release from prison said that he and others who were detained by Egyptian police on July 4 were divided into two jails cells at Tora Prison, a detention complex for criminal and political detainees on the southern outskirts of the capital Cairo.
“We were not tortured, but we were terrified of being possibly deported to China,” said the student who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“The Arab [Egyptian] police didn’t treat us badly, but the Chinese security officials put black hoods on our heads and repeatedly interrogated us, asking questions like, ‘Why did you come to Egypt?’ [and] ‘Which organizations did you participate in?’”
“In the end, I was released after the Eid [al-Adha] holiday [on Aug. 31], so I guess some of those who belonged to the yellow category may have also been released,” he said.
Sent back home?
Both released Uyghur students and Uyghurs in hiding in Egypt said they fear that the 16 others who have vanished may have been sent back home in light of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s visit to China to attend the BRICS Summit in early September and strengthen economic ties with Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Sisi to participate in the summit as “a reaffirmation of Egypt's position and its economic, political and commercial status that qualifies it to become a member of the BRICS,” according to the Egyptian government’s information service.
During Sisi’s visit on Sept. 3-5, some major trade deals were signed between Egypt and China, including a memorandum of understanding for Beijing to finance a U.S. $739 million rail link that will connect a new, yet-to-be-named capital the North African country is building to an industrial zone.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.