By Jomana Karadsheh and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
Amannisa Abdullah and her husband, Ahmad Talip, were on their way to shop for baby clothes in Dubai, when the message that changed both their lives came through. Ahmad read it and announced an abrupt change of plan: He had to report to a police station immediately.
Ahmad dropped Amannisa off at a friend’s house that day in February 2018, promising to pick her up later. He never came back.
In their Dubai apartment, a sleepless Amannisa prayed and cried through the night, watching the hours pass as her repeated calls to Ahmad went unanswered.
The next morning, the heavily pregnant 29-year-old shuffled out of the door, hugging her 5-year-old son close. They hailed a taxi to the police station where she tried to explain her predicament to a police officer.
As she spoke, her little boy tugged at her hand. Quietly, he pointed towards a jail cell where Ahmad was sitting.
For 13 days, Amannisa shuttled back and forth between her home and the jail, pleading with law enforcement officials to release Ahmad.
With each visit, her husband looked more dejected. He told her he was convinced that the long reach of China had reached his Uyghur family in the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s not safe here. You must take our boy and [go] to Turkey,” he told Amannisa in their last conversation. “If our new baby is a girl, please name her Amina. If he’s a boy, name him Abdullah.”
A week later, Ahmad was sent to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. Five days later, Amannisa said, Abu Dhabi authorities told her that he had been extradited to China.
Their daughter, Amina, was born a month later in Turkey. She has never met her father.
Amannisa’s testimony is one of more than a dozen accounts collected by CNN, detailing the alleged detention and deportation of Uyghurs at China’s request in three major Arab countries: Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
CNN has repeatedly reached out to Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia for comment on the extraditions and has not received a response. China’s government has also not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
In Egypt, rights groups have documented hundreds of detentions — and at least 20 deportations — of Uyghurs In 2017, the majority of them students at the prestigious Islamic university of Al-Azhar.
In Saudi Arabia between 2018 and 2020, at least one Uyghur Muslim was allegedly detained and deported after performing the Umrah pilgrimage in Islam’s holiest cities. Another was arrested after a pilgrimage and faces deportation.
Reports of Uyghur disappearances have unnerved the largely Muslim global diaspora from China’s Xinjiang region.
The families of the deported fear their loved ones have ended up among the estimated 2 million Uyghurs who have been sent to internment camps in Xinjiang in recent years.
As Beijing’s global influence expands, rights activists fear that even as Western nations take China to task over its treatment of Uyghurs, countries in the Middle East and beyond will increasingly be willing to acquiesce to its crackdown on members of the ethnic group at home and abroad.
A Human Rights Watch report released in April said China had tracked down hundreds of Uyghurs across the globe, forcing them to return and face persecution. In many cases “it is impossible to find out what has happened” to them, the report said.
For some Uyghurs, the extraditions from Muslim countries will be especially galling, shattering notions of Islamic solidarity and deepening feelings of isolation on a world stage where China’s power has grown rapidly.
CNN has seen a document issued by Dubai’s public prosecutor on February 20, 2018 — eight days after Ahmad Talip was taken into custody — confirming a Chinese extradition request for him, listed in the paperwork under his Chinese name, Aihemaiti Talifu.
The document says that Dubai authorities initially decided to release Ahmad due to insufficient proof that he should be extradited. The Dubai prosecutor’s office instructed police “to stop searching the above-mentioned person and lift all the restrictions on him, unless he is wanted for another reason.”
But on February 25, 2018, Amannisa was told that Ahmad had been deported. Authorities in the UAE never explained what her husband was accused of. Three years on, she still has no answers.
“If my husband [has committed] any crime, why they don’t tell me? Why China don’t tell me?” she asked CNN.
“I don’t know if my husband is still alive or not,” she said. “I have no … news about him from China, from UAE. Both [are] silent. They are silent, completely silence.”
“Why you don’t obey your own court paper? You say you are Muslim country. And I never believed that since this happened, I never believe you.”
Dubai authorities and the UAE’s Foreign Ministry have not responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment on Ahmad’s case.
Deportations from Muslim-majority countries
Xinjiang is among China’s most ethnically diverse regions, home to a variety of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups; the Uyghurs, who have their own distinct culture and language, are the largest of these.
Many Uyghurs have long felt marginalized in their homeland. Inter-ethnic tensions have been stoked by grievances linked to allegations of unfair economic policies and government-backed restrictions on religious behavior, halal food and Islamic dress.
In recent years, under President Xi Jinping, Beijing’s policy towards the region’s minority groups has hardened noticeably, prompting many to head overseas.
Since 2016, evidence has emerged that the Chinese government has been operating huge, fortified centers to detain Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang. As many as two million people may have been taken to the camps, according to the US State Department.
Former detainees and activists call these “concentration camps” — places where inmates are subjected to intense indoctrination intended to de-Islamize them, forced to learn Mandarin, and instructed in Communist Party propaganda.
China vehemently denies allegations of human rights abuses, insisting that the Xinjiang camps are voluntary “vocational training centers,” designed to stamp out religious extremism and terrorism.
But testimonies collected by CNN from former detainees describe incidents of forced labor, torture, sexual abuse and even the deaths of fellow detainees.
The US State Department has accused Beijing of “genocide” against the Uyghurs.
In addition to cultural assimilation, human rights groups and overseas Uyghur activists have also alleged that the Chinese government coerced Uyghurs to submit to birth control and enforced sterilization.
Over the years, Uyghurs abroad have spoken out about relatives who have disappeared in Xinjiang. Families have been ripped apart, and many children are growing up as orphans, with no contact from their parents back home.
Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur activist based in Oslo, says he has documented and confirmed at least 28 Uyghur deportations from three Muslim-majority countries between 2017 and 2019: 21 from Egypt, five from Saudi Arabia, and two, including Ahmad, from the UAE, according to Ayup.
But he fears this may be only the tip of the iceberg. Too often, he says, family members fear going public about deportations in case it jeopardizes the safety of loved ones who have disappeared, as well as other family members in Xinjiang.
In the Middle East, China has adeptly navigated the region’s hodgepodge of political fault lines, its friendships across the region transcending political divides.
China has increasingly robust relations with both Saudi Arabia and its regional arch-nemesis Iran.
Middle Eastern countries in financial dire straits, such as Lebanon, may find any overtures from China difficult to resist. Similarly, oil-rich Gulf Arab countries facing a pandemic-induced economic slump also view China as a possible financial lifeboat.
In a 2019 open letter, more than a dozen Muslim-majority countries — including the UAE, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — publicly endorsed China’s policies in Xinjiang. They were among 37 signatories responding to Western criticism of China at the UN Human Rights Council.
Following a visit to Xinjiang in 2020, the UAE’s ambassador to Beijing publicly praised China’s policies in the province. In a sit-down interview with Chinese state media this February, Ali al-Dhaheri said what “impressed” him the most during the visit was “the positive plan and vision for Xinjiang — China wants the region to play an active part in the Chinese economy, provide stability, raise living standards and improve the lives of the region’s people.”
For Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, the alleged treatment of Uyghurs by the autocratic governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is not surprising — despite those countries being signatories to the UN’s Convention Against Torture.
“A lot of these governments don’t care about human rights,” she told CNN. “They are unelected governments that persecute their citizens in their countries. There is no real rule of law and democracy when it comes to deportations of Uyghurs.”
Disappearances in Egypt
Maryam Muhammad, 29, has been keeping a dark secret from her two sons. To shield them from the cruel reality they were born into, she tells them their father, Muhtar Rozi, is on a long overseas work trip. He has been gone for almost four years.
But Salaheddiin and Alaeddin rarely ask about him. They were only 18 months old and 5 months old when he disappeared.
Maryam last heard from her husband on July 16, 2017, when he sent her a message saying he had been detained.
Rozi was among dozens of Uyghurs rounded up by Egyptian security services — believed to have been acting at the behest of the Chinese government — in a dramatic sweep documented by human rights groups.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 62 Uyghurs were arrested in a series of July 2017 raids at restaurants and supermarkets popular with the ethnic group, as well as at their homes. Many of those detained were students at Al-Azhar University.
Maryam is stoic. Recounting her story, she sticks to the facts, leaving out the emotional impact on her family. But she chokes up when she remembers her husband’s last words to her: “He said: ‘You are my precious. I love you so much.'”
“I’m tired of trying to be strong,” she says, wiping away the tears. “I know I must try to be strong because of my children, because of my husband.”
China and Egypt have never officially acknowledged the alleged deportations, which occurred less than a year after the two countries signed a security cooperation agreement — and less than three weeks after the Egyptian Interior Ministry and China’s Ministry of Public Security signed a “technical cooperation document.”
Neither government has responded to CNN’s request for comment on the events of 2017.
Earlier that year, China had demanded that all Uyghur students studying abroad return home, according to Human Rights Watch.
Maryam says the family had all the required documentation to prove their legal status in Egypt: “We have passports. We have [Egyptian] residency cards and we also have permission of the Chinese Embassy in Egypt to enter the school,” she told CNN. “So, we did not worry much about this.”
She showed CNN documents confirming her family’s legal status and a marriage certificate issued by the Chinese Embassy in Cairo.
As news of the raids began to spread in early July 2017, the family went into hiding, drawing up plans to flee the country. Maryam and the boys would fly to Istanbul, but since they believed Muhtar was more likely to be arrested, he would take a ferry to Jordan, hoping to escape state surveillance.
But in his last message to his wife, Muhtar told her he had been detained at Egypt’s Nuwaiba port.
She searched frantically for him — even risking a flight back to Egypt and hiring a lawyer. But the police told her they had no record of him.
“It’s like my husband became air,” she says.
Disappearance from pilgrimage
A small group of Uyghurs stand silently in the snow outside Istanbul’s Saudi consulate, infamous as the site of the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Nuriman Veli leads the group, her glasses fogging up from the cold. Hands trembling, she holds up a placard with a message to Saudi Arabia: “Don’t deport my father to China, send him to Turkey where he is a resident.”
Her father, Hamdullah Abduweli, was detained in the kingdom while on pilgrimage to Islam’s holy cities, Mecca and Medina. He has not yet been deported, and Nuriman and her sister are in a race against time, desperate not to lose another parent.
More than four years ago, they lost contact with their mother in Xinjiang. “If we lose our father, it will destroy us,” she said.
The pandemic prompted Saudi Arabia to close its airports just as Hamdullah was performing his pilgrimage, leaving him stranded in Saudi Arabia.
In October, he told family members he suspected he was being trailed by “Chinese agents.” A month later, Hamdullah and his Uyghur roommate were detained by Saudi authorities. Despite calls for their release by Human Rights Watch and others, the two have not been heard from since.
Hamdullah is at least the second Uyghur reported to have been detained during a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
In July 2018, Osman Ahmed was also allegedly arrested by Saudi authorities during a visit to the holy sites. After three months spent trying to locate Osman Ahmed, his family in Turkey was told by an elderly relative in Saudi Arabia that she had received word about Osman’s whereabouts from Saudi authorities.
“They told her: ‘We sent him back to wherever he is from,'” Osman Ahmad’s daughter Ilminur Osman told CNN.
The family has not been able to confirm Osman’s fate, but they say they have heard from people in Xinjiang that he was spotted in one of the region’s internment camps.
CNN reached out to the Saudi government for comment on both cases but did not receive a response.
“Shame on Saudi Arabia. If they don’t want Uyghurs to come to perform pilgrimage just say: ‘We do not want you here,'” activist Ayub told CNN. “Do not do this when people [come] to perform pilgrimage.”
It was only after her father’s detention that Nuriman found out other Uyghurs had been arrested in Saudi Arabia and forcibly returned to China. “If I knew, I would have told him not to go,” Nuriman says.
Activists say the situation is a damning indictment of the Muslim world’s leadership.
“These countries pride themselves for being leaders of the Islamic world, but they don’t bat an eyelid when returning people for persecution for being Muslim,” says Wang. “It is quite outrageous and I think it’s hypocritical, but that illustrates the geopolitical reality.”
Growing Sino-Turk relations
Even in Muslim countries that have traditionally been seen as places of safety for Uyghur Muslims, the sand is shifting.
Over the last decade, thousands of Uyghurs have settled in Turkey, with Uyghur neighborhoods and schools cropping up in the country’s major cities.
In addition to sharing a religion with the majority of Turkey’s population, Uyghurs — a Turkic ethnic group — also speak a similar language.
But in recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who once championed Uyghur rights — has toned down his criticism of China’s Xinjiang policy, in an apparent bid to boost relations with Beijing.
An extradition treaty between the two countries, ratified late last year by China and now awaiting approval by Turkey’s Parliament, is exacerbating fears. Turkish officials have sought to reassure Uyghurs, as well as the Turkish public, that they will not extradite Uyghurs back to China.
“It is not right to interpret this as Turkey will hand over Uyghur Turks to China,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last December, adding that Beijing had made requests in the past, but that Turkey had not complied.
But at least four Uyghurs, including a mother and her two children, were deported by Turkey to Tajikistan last year, according to activist Abduweli Ayup.
He says multiple testimonies suggest they eventually ended up in China.
Last September, Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management denied that Turkey had extradited Uyghurs to China. “We have not directly, or through third countries, deported any Uyghur Turks to China and Turkey does not and will not ever have such a policy,” the directorate said in a written statement.
But official statements like these do little to assuage Uyghurs’ concerns.
A small Istanbul apartment is the only home Amannisa’s 3-year-old daughter Amina has ever known. As she follows developments in Turkey, Amannisa fears the world is closing in on her and her children.
A few weeks after she arrived in Istanbul, she trekked across the city, asking passers-by for directions to the sea. She told them she wanted to take her children to enjoy the view, but says her real intentions reveal the depths of her despair.
“What I want to do is I want to go inside … with my child … because I don’t know how to swim,” says Amannisa. “I have no right to live [in] this world. Maybe this world is not big enough to let me live like other people.”
CNN’s Sarah El Sirgany contributed to this report.