Grand Imam of al-Azhar University
1 Youssef Abbas St.
Nasr City, Cairo
Re: Feared Forced Return of Ethnic Uyghurs to China
We are writing to you on behalf of Human Rights Watch and the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression to ask you to urge the Egyptian authorities to immediately cease the mass arrests of ethnic Uyghurs, many of whom are students at Al-Azhar University, and their family members. We have learned that since July 3, Egyptian authorities have rounded up at least 62 Uyghurs, seemingly at the request of the Chinese government. The authorities have not disclosed the basis for these arrests or their whereabouts and well-being, but we fear that many of them face imminent forced return to China, where they will face arbitrary detention and torture.
On July 6, Egypt put at least 12 Uyghurs on a flight back to China, and 22 others were detained pending imminent deportation, according to the New York Times, which quoted Egyptian aviation officials. The officials told the Times that police had ordered them to deport the Uyghurs without explanation.
Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on compliance with international human rights and refugee law in more than 90 countries around the world, including China and Egypt. The Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression is a group of lawyers and researchers established as an Egyptian legal entity that defends freedom of expression and enhances freedom of information, focusing on the issues of freedom of the media, freedom of creativity, students’ rights, academic freedom, and digital rights.
We ask that you urge the Egyptian authorities to release those who are arbitrarily detained and ensure that none are forcibly returned to China. As you know, Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims, most of whom live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s far west, where the Chinese government, as part of ostensible counterterrorism efforts, has been repressing their right to practice their religion and enjoy many other rights freely.
We note that you have spoken out strongly against the repression in Xinjiang, stating in June 2015 that you reject “all forms of oppression practiced against the rights of Uyghur Muslims in China, and the confiscation of their religious rights and personal freedoms.”
Sources told Human Rights Watch that Egyptian police arrested four Uyghur students in Cairo on July 3; raided two restaurants and one supermarket in Cairo, arresting 38 people, many of them students, on July 4; and arrested 20 more in Alexandria on July 5. Sources also said that Egyptian police have been arresting Uyghurs in their homes. There are also reports of Uyghurs being held at Cairo International Airport when they attempted to leave for Turkey, but Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm this. Sources told Human Rights Watch that many of those arrested have valid residency permits in Egypt. At least one of those arrested is a woman. A number of Uyghurs who have not been arrested have fled their homes out of fear.
It is unclear what motivated the government’s mass roundup of these students and their family members. In the past few months, the Chinese government had ordered Uyghur students studying abroad, including those in Egypt, to return home. There are reports that Chinese authorities have detained family members of these students to force them to come back. On June 19, Egyptian Interior Ministry Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar and Chinese Deputy Public Security Minister Chin Zhimin met in Cairo, and Chin stressed China’s eagerness to exchange information about “extremist organizations.” In September 2016, Egypt’s Interior Ministry and China’s Public Security Ministry signed a technical cooperation agreement, pledging increased efforts against terrorism and the sharing of Chinese expertise.
China's record of arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance of Uyghurs, as well as the politicized nature of judicial proceedings in past cases of forced repatriation, raise serious concerns that if deported, these individuals will be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Under customary international law and as a party to the Convention against Torture, Egypt 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.
In recent years there have been multiple incidents of Uyghurs being forcibly returned to China in violation of international law. In August 2015, Thailand forcibly returned 220 Uighurs to China. In December 2012, Malaysia deported six Uyghur men back to China. In both cases, Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain any further information from Thai, Malaysian, or Chinese government sources as to the deportees’ whereabouts or well-being.
Chinese authorities have a history of forcibly disappearing, harshly sentencing, or executing Uyghurs after they have been forcibly repatriated from neighboring countries. Other cases include:
- In December 2009, Cambodia forcibly returned 20 Uyghurs despite the fact that the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had already issued “persons of concern” letters to all members of the group. Subsequent media reports, which could not be independently verified, stated that some members of that group were tried and sentenced to death, while others were sentenced to prison.
- In February 2007, Ismail Semed, a Uyghur who had been forcibly repatriated from Pakistan, was executed under separatism and terrorism charges.
- In October 2003, Shaheer Ali, also known as Shirali, was executed, also under terrorism charges, after the Nepali authorities had deported him in January 2002. He had left a detailed account of the torture he had endured while in detention in 2001.
- In June 2006, Uzbekistan deported Hussein Celil, a Uyghur refugee who had acquired Canadian citizenship, at China’s request. There were credible allegations that he was tortured upon his return. The Chinese government refused to recognize Celil's Canadian citizenship or to allow Canadian diplomats to visit him or attend his trial. He was sentenced in April 2007 to life imprisonment on terrorism charges after having been coerced into signing a confession, according to his family.
The Chinese government’s restrictions on Islam in Xinjiang are among the most stringent in the world. The authorities control all aspects of religious activities in the region—including personnel appointment and locations of worship—and closely monitor those who participate in these activities. Many of these restrictions intrude into the most private aspects of personal lives. For example, a recent directive banned parents from giving children dozens of names with religious connotations, such as Saddam and Medina, on the basis that they could “exaggerate religious fervor.” Children with banned names will not be able to obtain a “hukou,” or household registration, essential for accessing public school and other social services. They also ban men from wearing beards that the authorities deem “abnormal,” as well as ban women from donning religious attire the authorities find “extremist.” Failure to comply with any of these rules can lead to punishment, including imprisonment. The government also severely restricts other basic human rights of residents in the area, including freedom of expression and assembly.
In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened controls in Xinjiang in the name of fighting “separatism,” “terrorism,” and “religious extremism.” In 2015, Chinese courts convicted 1,419 people – many of them Uighurs – for threatening state security, inciting “separatism,” and taking part in terrorism. However, details about protests, violence, and counterterrorism operations are scant, with few independent sources of information.
We request that you urgently ask the Egyptian authorities to:
- Immediately release arbitrarily detained Uighurs and in any case ensure that they are not forcibly returned to China
- While they are in detention, allow the Uighurs access to lawyers and families and officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
We appreciate your attention to this matter and hope that you will stand by your past support for this persecuted minority. Please contact us if we can be of further assistance.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa Director
Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression