Egyptian police moved this week to round up and deport Uyghur students living in Cairo, detaining some in restaurants or at their homes and seizing others at airports as they tried to flee the country, sources in the Egyptian capital said.
At least 200 have been detained since July 4, including 30 seized by police at the Eslem Uyghur restaurant located in Cairo’s 7th District, one female student told RFA’s Uyghur Service on Thursday.
“All of them are students here,” the young woman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I know one of the students who was taken away. His name is Masjid Musa,” she said. “He has the legal papers he needs to stay in Egypt, but they don’t care if your papers are in order or not.”
“If you are a Uyghur, you will be immediately detained,” she said.
Another detainee, named Abdughappar, was taken from an airplane as he was leaving for Turkey, the young woman said.
“He is a student at Al-Azhar University and has a family, a wife and two children. They were running away from Egypt because everyone who went back to China in the past few months has disappeared without a trace.”
“Anyone deported back to China will definitely be jailed,” she said.
“I have heard that Uyghurs are being held at the Cairo airport, and that armed Chinese security officers have been seen there,” another Uyghur student said, also on condition he not be named.
“We call on Uyghur leaders [in exile] to contact the Turkish government and international human rights organizations and ask them to help us.”
Speaking from the airport, another Uyghur student said that Egyptian police had taken his passport and were holding him and other detainees together in a hall.
“There is also another group here who were brought back from their flight, so we have more than 20 Uyghur students here altogether,” he said. “The police are watching us and telling us we will be deported back to China.”
Another 80 were meanwhile being held at an airport in Alexandria, another source said, while a further 24 were reported detained there on Friday while waiting for a 3:00 p.m. flight to Turkey.
On the run
Students who have evaded detention are hiding in malls, in mosques, and in nearby fields, one Uyghur mother said, adding that she is now on the run with two young students given to her by their mother for protection.
“When we were leaving, I spotted some people watching the area where we were staying. They were in a black, ugly-looking car with tinted windows, and after we left they detained the Uyghur students who were living at our house.”
“They were all Uyghurs, and I’m sure they were sent by the Chinese government,” she added.
One Uyghur student now in hiding said that his brother, a PhD student at Al-Azhar, had also been detained.
“I am now on the run with his wife and three children,” he said. “My brother called me from the detention center and said that he saw about 200 Uyghur students being held there.”
“It has been several days now that we have been running on empty stomachs,” another student said.
“We have valid visas and passports, but we can’t go to the airports, and we can’t go the markets for food or get gas for our cars. The Egyptian people have been told that we’re criminals, and they inform the police if they see us.”
Forced to sign
Another student said that a friend in detention had told him that police were forcing them to sign documents stating they had participated in Uyghur separatist organizations based outside of China.
“Some did not sign the document, because older students warned them not to,” he said.
“Police took fingerprints of all their fingers.”
Also speaking to RFA, an Uzbek national living in Egypt said that he and his family were dining at one of Cairo’s Uyghur restaurants when police suddenly arrived.
“There were 10 to 20 Uyghurs there, chefs and so on, and the police took all of them away.”
“There were Kyrgyz and Uzbek people at the restaurant, too, but they weren’t touched at all. Police asked everyone’s ethnicity and took away all the people who said they were Uyghur.”
Reached for comment, a staff member at the Egyptian embassy in Washington D.C. said only that she had heard media reports of the detentions. “Since I am not authorized to speak on this matter, I cannot say anything more about it,” she added.
Calls to the embassy’s press office rang unanswered on Friday.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Munich-based exile World Uyghur Congress, meanwhile called on the international community to prevent the forced return of Uyghurs from Egypt to China, adding, “We have been following this issue closely for the past two or three months.”
“I ask all Uyghur organizations to do their best to help the Uyghurs detained in Egypt.”
International law requires that people living in foreign countries not be returned to situations in which they are likely to face persecution, Sophie Richardson—China director for Human Rights Watch—said in an interview.
"It's extremely concerning if the Egyptian government is somehow being complicit in a legally baseless Chinese effort to force people back to China," Richardson said.
On July 6, as at least 36 Uyghur students detained in Egypt were being sent back against their will to China, a Beijing-sponsored troupe of Uyghur dancers and musicians performed at Cairo’s Opera House in a production showcasing Xinjiang’s “colorful” Uyghur culture, Chinese state media reported.
The performance and an accompanying exhibit of musical instruments and photos of ethnic costumes was backed by support at “the highest level” from China’s Central Party Political Bureau, China’s state-controlled news agency Xinhua said.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja and Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Richard Finney.