Authorities in Saudi Arabia should disclose the status of two Uyghur Chinese nationals and explain the reason for their detention, according to a global rights watchdog, which urged the Saudi government to refrain from deporting the pair back to China where they face arbitrary detention and torture.
In a statement late on Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited Norway-based Uyghur activist Abduweli Ayup as saying that authorities in Saudi Arabia arrested 52-year-old Muslim religious scholar Hamidulla Wali along with his roommate Nurmemet Rozi on the evening of Nov. 20—the night before the country hosted the two-day virtual G20 leaders’ summit.
Wali, the former owner of Hadiya Clothing, based in the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), told RFA’s Uyghur Service earlier this month that he had arrived in Saudi Arabia in February to perform the umrah hajj, a form of the holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that can be taken at any point during the year. He said at the time that he had been unable to return to Turkey, where he has been a resident since 2016, after travel routes were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Wali claimed that a source in Saudi Arabia had informed him that Chinese authorities made an official request to the Saudi government to arrest and deport him to China, although he did not elaborate on why at the time. Wali said he was also advised to go into hiding shortly before police first began looking for him in July.
However, HRW cited an anonymous source who said Wali had told them he went into hiding after delivering a speech to the Uyghur community in Saudi Arabia in which he encouraged Uyghurs and other Muslims to end Beijing’s rule in the XUAR “using weapons.” Uyghurs face severe restriction on their faith and culture in the region, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of extralegal internment camps since early 2017.
According to the activist Ayup, Rozi had managed to contact a family member to say that the pair are being held in Jeddah’s Bureiman prison and are “in danger.” Both men are residents of Turkey.
HRW, which has previously called on G20 member countries to demand that Saudi Arabia end rights abuses that include the jailing and harassing of dissidents and rights activists, urged Riyadh to explain last week’s detentions.
“Saudi Arabia’s attempts to seek positive publicity through hosting the G20 would be severely undercut if it detains and forcibly returns fellow Muslims back to unbridled persecution in China,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
“Saudi authorities should immediately disclose the status of the Uyghur detainees and clarify why they arrested them.”
Wali, who was detained by Chinese security authorities in 2014, told RFA earlier this month that he believes if he is deported to China, he is likely to be forcibly disappeared and face imprisonment or detention in an internment camp. He was taken into custody in the XUAR following a June 2013 incident in Lukchun (Lukqun) township, in Turpan (Tulufan) prefecture's Pichan (Shanshan) county, in which deadly clashes left at least 46 dead after protesters attacked area police stations, based on accounts by local officials and residents.
The son of a female employee of Hadiya Clothing had participated in the incident, which ultimately led the authorities to suspect Wali himself of having been part of the events that unfolded. He was eventually declared innocent and released after several months in jail, but not before authorities shut down his Urumqi-based company and moved his household registration from the city back to his home area of Turpan’s Toksun (Tuokexun) county.
Beijing describes the three-year-old network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers” that provides a deterrent to “religious extremism,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Speaking to RFA’s Mandarin Service, Shi Jianyu, an expert on Islamic issues at the Association of Central Asian Studies in Taiwan, said Beijing had likely labeled Wali as a radical Islamist who relayed the opinions of Turkish militants to sympathetic Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia.
“In the future, it may be harmful to China, so Beijing used this as a reason to ask Saudi Arabia to send him back,” Shi said.
“He only has a Turkish residence permit, which is a long-term residence permit, but in fact he does not have Turkish nationality. He is still holding a Chinese passport. Under such circumstances, Turkey cannot protect him with his nationality … If he is sent back to Beijing, his future will be frightful, and his end will definitely be very miserable.”
If Wali and Rozi are deported, it would not be the first time the Chinese and Saudi governments have cooperated to detain and forcibly repatriate Uyghurs from the Middle Eastern nation. The Saudi government is one of several from Muslim-majority countries throughout the region that have publicly defended China’s repression of the Uyghurs on the grounds that China is legitimately dealing with a “Uyghur terrorism” problem.
In the past several years alone, Saudi has sent at least four Uyghurs back to China—all four of whom had gone to the country either for work or to make a pilgrimage to Mecca for the umrah hajj.
Human rights organizations have roundly criticized Saudi Arabia for such actions, which severely limit the rights of Uyghurs to free movement and, more specifically, their rights to freely practice religion by making the pilgrimage.
Dilshat Rashit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, noted that Saudi Arabia and China “are mutual allies at the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
“China has always worried that there will be countries that sympathize with and support Uyghurs in the Muslim world,” Rashit told RFA’s Mandarin Service.
The Asian superpower narrowly won a seat on the council last month, placing fourth out of five countries vying for four seats in the Asia-Pacific region. Saudi Arabia, which has faced its own share of condemnation over its rights record, placed fifth.
HRW noted Monday that under customary international law and as a party to the Convention against Torture, Saudi Arabia is obliged to ensure that no one in its custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.
“[Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman’s apparent endorsement of China’s persecution of the Muslim Uyghur community is bad enough, but his government should not play a direct role in it by deporting Uyghur men back to possible arbitrary detention and torture,” Stork said.
On Monday, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with a representative of the Saudi mission to the U.N. in New York who said they would respond with more information about the detention of Wali and Rozi, but had yet to do so at the time of publication.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin service and Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.