Saudi Arabian authorities have deported at least four Uyghurs to China over the past four years who were either visiting the country as part of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca or living in the country legally, putting them at risk of extralegal detention back home, according to relatives and other sources.
Saudi Arabia began providing asylum to Uyghurs in the 1930s and 1940s but has drastically changed its policies toward them in recent years.
On a state visit to Beijing in February 2019, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman made a public statement in support of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, despite reports that authorities in the country’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have held up to 1.8 million members of the ethnic group and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.
Analysts suggest that there are many possible explanations for the Saudi government’s support of China, including that political and cultural, rather than financial, considerations are the most likely reasons.
RFA’s Uyghur Service recently learned that Saudi Arabia detained Osman Ahmat Tohti, a Uyghur who had been living in Turkey with his family for several years, while in country on the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, in 2018. His wife, Sudinisa, and three of their six children are still in Turkey, where they have lived since 2015, when the parents and three of the children were able to leave the XUAR and relocate there.
According to Sudinisa, Tohti was detained by police in his home prefecture of Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) once, in May 2014, and released around two months later. His wife told RFA that Tohti’s business fell apart after he was released, and it was difficult for him to find other work. Eventually, the family was able to obtain passports for 50,000 yuan (U.S. $7,500) and decided to leave the country.
They left China in 2015, first going to Saudi Arabia and then ultimately settling in Turkey with his wife and three of his six children. He was reportedly detained while traveling in Saudi Arabia on July 25, 2018 and held in the country for close to six months before being forcibly repatriated to China in February 2019.
“It was just three days before he was set to come back [to Turkey]—he’d already gotten his ticket,” she said.
“Two or three days after getting his ticket … I got the news that he’d been detained on the 25th.”
Sudinisa said she learned that her husband had visited with a relative and that the next day, authorities showed up in a car, took his passport away, and detained him. Both she and her husband have permanent residency cards permitting them to live legally in both Saudi Arabi and Turkey.
“We thought for sure they would release him because [Saudi Arabia] is a Muslim country,” she said.
“Later [the person who was giving me information] disappeared, but then in March  he told me that they’d ‘sent him on his way’” back to China.
Sudinisa said that while she hears something about Tohti every once in a while, she doesn’t know where he is.
“I want to know what’s happened to him, whether he’s still alive, and I want to know about my children [back in the XUAR] and parents, but I don’t know anything about anyone,” she said.
“I haven’t had contact with my parents since I last talked with them on Jan. 2, 2017. I’ve had no contact with my oldest daughter.”
According to Sudinisa, her daughter and son-in-law were sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016. She said she heard from sources in the region that her younger brother, Abdugheni Abduletip, was detained, but does not know if he has been released.
“We heard that they detained my son-in-law for having ‘memorized the Qur’an’ at home, with my husband, but we don’t know if there are any other reasons [for his detention],” she said.
Additionally, two of her daughter’s brothers-in-law, as well as her daughter’s mother-in-law, are reportedly being held in prison, although the lengths of their sentences are unclear.
Meanwhile, a source in Turkey, who declined to provide their name fearing reprisal, told RFA that they learned through an attorney that Tohti is still awaiting sentencing.
“The attorney learned recently that Osman Hajim is in the homeland and has supposedly been in detention for a period,” the source said, using an honorific for Tohti signifying one who has completed the hajj.
“The attorney said that he’s currently in a Chinese prison but has not been sentenced.”
The source also confirmed that Tohti’s daughter and son-in-law had each been sentenced to prison.
The attorney “shared a bit of information about Mr. Osman’s eldest daughter and her husband’s 15-year sentences, but they didn’t share many details,” the source added.
Other Uyghur deportees identified
RFA was also able to identify three other Uyghurs who were deported to China from Saudi Arabia over the past four years as Nurullah Ablimit, originally from Kashgar (Kashi), who was living in Saudi Arabia after initially moving there for studies; Bahtiyar Haji, a trader from the XUAR capital Urumqi; and a man from Hotan named Yaqupjan. However, there is no information about their current status or whereabouts.
Nurullah Ablimit was reportedly repatriated to China in 2016. According to individuals familiar with the community of Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia, he is reportedly being held in a prison facility in Urumqi, though the exact prison and the reason for his incarceration there are unknown.
Nurullah Ablimit is the son of well-known Kashgar religious scholar Ablimit Damollam, who died in detention in 2017. At the time, it was speculated that Damollam had died as the result of torture while in custody, although China’s strict lockdown on information within the XUAR has made the cause of death impossible to verify.
Sources have also shared that Nurullah Ablimit’s older brother, Peyzulla Ablimit, and his younger brother, Hezibulla Ablimit, are also being held in prison.
One source, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA: “I received word that the three of them are being held in prison in Urumqi.”
The source claimed that Peyzulla Ablimit was detained at the Urumqi airport in 2016, when he was attempting to leave China to visit his wife and children in Turkey.
While some sources have speculated that Nurullah Ablimit was detained upon his repatriation to China and later arrested for having traveled to Turkey—one of several nations blacklisted by authorities for Uyghurs to visit due to the perceived threat of “extremism”—others have put forth the possibility that he was detained after having been wrongly accused of shady business dealings in Saudi Arabia.
He was reportedly taken to Kashgar upon return to Xinjiang and released from detention after three months until he was then detained a second time in February 2017.
Cultural and political connection
Muhammat Tohti Atawulla, an analyst in Turkey, suggested that Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes have a particular fondness for China, which China has managed to cultivate in its diplomatic dealings throughout the Middle East.
But he dismissed the idea that they seek to curry China’s favor for economic reasons, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both wealthy nations.
“My view is that a cultural element is important here—these governments are all dictatorships and thus must support one another’s politics on the international stage,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia might be an ally of the United States, but when it comes to human rights, [Saudi] has constantly received [U.S.] criticism ... Thus, in my opinion, they see China’s repression of Uyghurs, whom they see as anti-Chinese, as being logically correct.”
Atawulla noted that China has maintained a “consistently good reputation” in Arab countries.
“Religious leaders, heads of state, members of religious communities: all refuse to believe that China is doing anything wrong to Muslims,” he said.
RFA made attempts to contact Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington for comment but received no response. An employee at the country’s mission to the United Nations in New York promised to follow up by email or telephone but has yet to respond.
Reported by Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.