‘We are on our way to death’: In Saudi Arabia, four Uighurs risk extradition to China

Video filmed on the evening of April 9 by Buheliqiemu Abula in the back of a truck taking him to a detention centre in Riyadh, according to the NGOs Amnesty International and Safeguard Defenders.

Several NGOs have accused Saudi Arabia of having arbitrarily arrested four Uighurs and of trying to extradite them to China, where their fate is extremely uncertain. The detainees include two men who had travelled to the country to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in November 2020, as well as a mother and her 13-year-old daughter, who were arrested on March 31, according to several sources. Videos of their cries for help are circulating on social media.

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According to several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, a mother and her 13-year-old daughter, as well as two men, are facing imminent extradition to China, a country accused of repressive policies towards this Muslim minority in Xinjiang. On April 9, Buheliqiemu Abula, the mother, recorded a video appeal for help in the back of a police truck that was taking her and her daughter to Riyadh.

4 pèlerins ouïghours dont 1 mère & sa fille de 13 ans sont sur le point d’être déportés par 🇸🇦 vers les camps de concentration 🇨🇳.

J’appelle toutes/tous les Musulmans dignes de ce nom, au boycott de pèlerinage ! Interpellez @arabiesaouditefr #ArabieSaouditeCollabo #BoycottHajj pic.twitter.com/Udb4tpL8Ya — Dr. Dilnur Reyhan 🖋📚🌈 (@DilnurReyhan) April 10, 2022 Buheliqiemu Abula sent this video on the evening of April 9 to a member of the NGO Human Rights Watch, with whom she was already in regular contact. Tweet From Dilnur Rehyan, president of the Uyghur Institute of Europe.

“We are in a police car. Save us, we are on our way to death. They are taking us to Riyadh to send us [to China],” she implores in Uighur in this video shared on April 9 by activists and human rights associations on Twitter, to raise awareness about their plight.

In the video, we briefly see the face of a young woman wearing a hijab, identified as her 13-year-old daughter, as well as the interior of the vehicle. The sound of the road can be heard in the background.

Arbitrary arrests

Abula send the video to a member of the NGO Human Rights Watch, with whom she had already been in regular contact. According to Laura Harth, of the NGO Safeguard Defenders, which is also mobilised to help them, Abula and her daughter were arrested, without cause, on March 31 in Mecca, then taken to Jeddah, before being taken on April 9 to a detention centre in Riyadh.

“Since [April 13], it has been difficult to get more news. The last contact we had with her, she said her departure to China, to Canton, was imminent,” Harth said.

Abula has been in Saudi Arabia for at least two years. Her ex-husband, also a Uighur, has been detained since November 2020 with a friend of his in Saudi Arabia. They had come to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in February 2020.

She was allowed to stay in touch with him and was the only person able to give regular updates on the men’s situation. Their last telephone exchange was on March 20.

The fate of these four Uighurs, if sent back to China, is of great concern. Hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims have been locked in camps and forcibly assimilated into Chinese culture, arbitrarily imprisoned, forced to work or even tortured. The inhumane treatment has been documented by numerous testimonies, NGO reports as well as journalistic investigations. Although Beijing denies the claims, several international governments, including the French, have condemned the treatment of Uighurs in China.

‘We haven’t heard my father’s voice in almost two years’

Abula’s ex-husband was arrested with his friend, Aimidoula Waili, a religious dignitary. Waili’s daughter is 21 years old and studies in Istanbul, having left China with her father and sister in 2016, just before the situation deteriorated in Xinjiang. She has been drawing attention to her father’s situation with videos on Twitter.

She spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team:

My father went to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage [to Mecca] in February 2020. He was going to return to Turkey, but it became complicated because of the coronavirus-related border closure. Then he was arrested by the Saudi government in November 2020 with his friend without any justification. Since then, we have not been able to communicate with my father. We haven’t seen him or even heard his voice for almost two years.

Merhaba! Böyle bir üzücü haberi sabahın bu saatinde paylaşmak istemezdim. Ama durumun aciliyeti ve ciddiyeti sebebiyle paylaşmak zorundayım!

İki kişi göz göre göre Çin’e gönderilmek üzere, ölüme gönderilmek üzere!

Buna sessiz kalmayın! Burada iki kişinin hayat-memat meselesi! pic.twitter.com/eHzznJsqKx — Sumeyye~Hamdullah (@SF_Ayturk16) March 18, 2022 Appel à l’aide de la fille de Aimidoula Waili diffusée sur son compte Twitter, le 18 mars, où elle montre le passeport chinois de son père et celui de son ami et demande leur libération. Elle fait des vidéos de ce genre depuis décembre 2020.

I can’t even imagine what will happen if they are sent back to China. I fear they will be executed or imprisoned, that they will be tortured in all sorts of ways. […] He has done nothing wrong. We have only a few hours left to save them.

‘I tried to convince her several times to go back to Turkey’

Abduweli Ayup is a Uighur living in Norway who is trying to alert members of his community to the dangers of travelling to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage. He has documented around 30 cases of Uighurs being extradited to China from three Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.

I was in contact with [Abula] for two years, one of the reason was that she was the only person that could give me news of the two Uighurs that were detained. In one of the last message she sent me, she told me she was scared, and that she had cried. I try to tell Uighurs not to go to Saudi Arabia, so of course I tried to convince her several times to go back to Turkey. She had a visa there. I told her that everytime I saw Uighurs being extradited – about 30 times – and I could not do anything. I told her that if she was arrested, the only thing I could do is tell the story to journalists and NGOs. But she told me she could not leave her ex-husband, that she was the only one remaining that could stay in contact and help him.

Saudi police had reportedly told Buheliqiemu Abula and her daughter that they were to prepare for departure to Guangzhou, China overnight, according to a statement from Amnesty International sent to the FRANCE 24 Observers team. According to information from Safeguard Defenders, as of April 14 at 2 pm, the four Uighurs were still in Riyadh.

Uighurs extradited by Muslim countries

Every year, between one and two million Muslims travel to Mecca for the pilgrimage, the umra or hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam. Saudi authorities oversee and charge for this essential pilgrimage for Muslims from all over the world, including Uighurs.

#Uyghurs protest today in front of @SaudiEmbassyUSA in DC.

Calling on #Saudi officials & authorities to stop the deportation of 4 #Uyghurs at the behest of #China!@FreeUyghurNow @UyghurProject @Uyghur_American#FreeUyghurs #StopSaudiDeportation

1/2 pic.twitter.com/fFrtnZAkL9 — Campaign For Uyghurs (@CUyghurs) April 10, 2022 Manifestation de Ouïghours devant l’ambassade saoudienne à Washington, le 11 avril pour demander que les quatre Ouïghours arrêtés ne soient pas extradés.

Amnesty International said the forcible return of the four Uighurs would be “an unacceptable violation of Saudi Arabia’s obligations under international law”. Earlier, in an April 1 statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also called on the country not to extradite the Chinese nationals.

Saudi Arabia is a key ally of China and has repeatedly supported the country’s official policy in Xinjiang. During a visit by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to Beijing in February 2019, he defended China’s right to enact “anti-terrorism” measures, according to Chinese media.

At the time of publication, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior had not responded to our requests for comment.

Several other Muslim countries have been accused of being silent or even complicit in China’s policy towards the Uighurs. Between 2017 and 2019, Egypt was also accused of sending nearly 20 Uighur nationals back to China. In December 2021, Morocco agreed to extradite Yidiresi Aishan, a 34-year-old Uighur arrested upon arrival in Casablanca, citing an extradition treaty between the countries.