Detained Uyghur scholar faces possible deportation back to China by Saudi Arabia
Two Uyghur men were arrested on November 20 by state security in Saudi Arabia and they are now detained at a local detention center. Activists overseas worry that they could be deported back to China by Saudi officials. If they were sent back to China, they might face lengthy prison sentences.
The 52-year-old Uyghur religious scholar Aimadoula Waili and another Uyghur man Nurmemet Rozi were reportedly arrested by state security in Saudi Arabia on November 20, said Abduweli Ayup, a prominent Uyghur activist based in Norway. Ayup worries that both of them could be deported back to China, facing the risk of lengthy jail terms
According to Ayup, Aimadoula Waili went to Saudi Arabia in February to perform a religious pilgrimage. Since then, Waili has stayed in the country. Nurmemet Rozi also arrived in Saudi Arabia in February and joined the pilgrimage.
Ayup said Waili gave a speech to the Uyghur community in Saudi Arabia. During the speech, Waili reportedly encouraged Uyghurs and Muslims to pray about the situation in Xinjiang and to “fight back the Chinese invaders…using weapons,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Following the speech, Waili was informed by Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia that local police has been looking for him because the Chinese consulate in Saudi Arabia asked local authorities to deport him. According to Middle East Eye, Waili said he had not been given any official warning from the Saudi officials but Uyghurs hosting him said he was wanted by local police.
Abduweli Ayup said Waili was arrested twice in Xinjiang in 2013 and 2014 for preaching. Since Waili was a political prisoner in China, Beijing continues to pursue him even after he went into exile. According to documents provided by Ayup, Waili is under the protection of the United Nations Refugee Agency, and he has official residency permit in Turkey.
After Waili was repeatedly warned by local Uyghurs that he might be hunted by Saudi police, he has tried to avoid going outside during the day and change his local residence regularly to evade police surveillance.
Taken away at night
According to Abduweli Ayup, Waili and Rozi usually live with another Uyghur man. On the day of their arrest, one of the Uyghur man went out to buy stuff, and Waili and Rozi were arrested by Saudi state security at 8 p.m. on November 20. The other Uyghur man later learned that Waili and Rozi were detained at the Buraiman prison in Jeddah. He has not been given any charges so far.
Waili reportedly called his wife and told her that he was in danger. He urged her to take actions. His wife then contacted Ayup and said Waili had been arrested by Saudi state security. Ayup said Waili has no criminal record in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
In fact, this is not the first time that Saudi Arabia tries to arrest Uyghurs and deport them back to China. Ayup said 5 Uyghurs were arrested and deported back to China from Saudi Arabia in 2017 and 2018. One of them might be imprisoned between 11 to 20 years.
“Mecca is a pilgrimage city for all Muslims and it’s hard for people to avoid visiting there,” said Ayup. “I wrote an article in 2019 to warn Uyghurs about the dangers of going to Saudi Arabia. However, since I’m not a religious scholar, my article can’t really stop people from going on pilgrimage.”
Human Rights Watch also issued a statement following Waili and Rozi’s arrest, demanding Saudi officials to clarify their status and disclose the basis of their detention. HRW urged Riyadh not to deport the Uyghurs back to China, because they could face arbitrary detention and torture.
In fact, the two Uyghurs were arrested one day before the G20 leaders’ summit and Saudi Arabia is the host of this year’s conference. “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, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Saudi authorities should immediately disclose the status of the Uyghur detainees and clarify why they arrested them.”
Additionally, since Waili is under the protection of the UN Refugee Agency, Ayup said UNHCR has the responsibility to call for the immediate release of the two Uyghurs. However, UNHCR has not responded to the calls from Ayup.
“I tried to call the UNHCR several times but nobody ever answered,” said Ayup. “I also tried to share information about Waili’s arrest with several human rights organizations, but so far, the UNHCR hasn’t said anything on the matter publicly. It’s irresponsible for international organizations to act like this.”
This article was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.