Ethnic Uyghur students detained in Egypt for deportation to China are being held by the country’s national intelligence service, according to an activist, as a human rights group said the agency’s involvement is a clear indication that Beijing had ordered the roundup.
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 China, where rights groups say they face a serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture.
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.”
Earlier this week, a Uyghur activist student based in Egypt told RFA on condition of anonymity that he had discovered around 50 Uyghur students detained at 14 police stations over the weekend, including in several districts in Cairo and Alexandria.
While speaking with a ranking police officer at the Nozha station in Cairo on Sunday, he was told that the detainees “shouldn’t worry about anything” because Egypt and China’s foreign ministries were “discussing how to handle this issue,” and that they wouldn’t be deported to China, but to a third country “in the worst case scenario.”
But after smuggling a cellphone to the detained Uyghurs there, the activist said he received a call from one of the students the following day who said the group was being handcuffed and “told that they were going to be deported to China.”
A lawyer who spoke with police at Nozha station on Monday was told that the students would be taken to the Chinese embassy to be photographed, and students told the activist by phone that they “would be deported after they were handed over to the Chinese embassy,” he said.
On Tuesday, the activist told RFA that he had learned that Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID), also known as the Mukhabarat, had ordered the detention of the Uyghur students and is currently holding them in an undisclosed location.
“This isn’t the regional, but the national intelligence service,” he said.
“Police confirmed that the original order to detain and deport Uyghur students came from [the GID].”
On Wednesday, the activist said that “at least 73 Uyghur students” were currently being held at the headquarters of the GID in Cairo, while reports said that all of the students were being transferred to the capital’s notorious Tora Prison complex for interrogation by Chinese officials.
When contacted by RFA, an official at the Chinese embassy in Cairo, who refused to give her name and title, said she was unaware of any arrests of Uyghur students by the Egyptian authorities.
Husein Bayun, a representative of London-based rights group Amnesty International in Tunisia, told RFA Tuesday that it was extremely uncommon for the GID to issue such an order.
“That is a sign of the level of Chinese involvement in this, because the [GID] in Egypt would usually not handle these types of cases at all,” he said.
“The even bigger problem with the situation right now is that, so far, there is absolutely zero transparency from the Egyptian government, so lawyers on the ground there are unable to contact detained students.”
Bayun noted that the Egyptian government has yet to comment on the number of people arrested, where they were arrested and held, whether they will be forcibly repatriated to China, and what the grounds for their arrest were.
“Looking at Egypt and China’s past records of human rights violations during detentions, it’s extremely worrying when we don’t know the situation of the detained students,” he said.
As a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and according to international law, Egypt cannot deport the students to China because of the threats they face at home, Bayun said.
“As we already know, the students that were deported to China are now serving 15-year sentences … for allegedly ‘inciting radicalism,’ which is a ridiculous charge,” he said.
“So basically, many of the people who could be deported back to China would face risk of torture, would face the risk of extremely long prison sentences and completely unfair trials.”
Also on Tuesday, the Tucson, Arizona-based Middle East Studies Association (MESA) published an open letter to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry condemning the detention and deportation of Uyghur students from the country.
“We understand that many Uyghur students in Cairo who have not been detained are currently in hiding, fearing for their personal safety,” the letter said.
“For international students to confront such fear, uncertainty, and physical insecurity despite having committed no crimes and having valid residence or tourist visas is extremely alarming, and especially so given that the Egyptian government is apparently doing nothing to protect them.”
MESA stressed that Egypt is in violation of its role as a party to the U.N. Convention against Torture by deporting the students to China, where it said they are “highly likely to face detention and torture” as members of a persecuted minority there, and urged the leaders to provide them with protection.
“We call on the Egyptian government to immediately halt arrests and deportations of Uyghur students studying in Egypt, as well as family members who may be accompanying them, and to allow all Uyghur students with valid visas to continue their studies in Egypt undisturbed,” the group said.
“We further call on the Egyptian government to speak out against attempts by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to coerce these students to return to China and to threaten their family members who are still in China.”
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 Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.