A young Chinese woman says she was held for eight days at a Chinese-run secret detention facility in Dubai along with at least two Uyghurs, in what may be the first evidence that China is operating a so-called “black site” beyond its borders.
The woman, 26-year-old Wu Huan, was on the run to avoid extradition back to China because her fiancé was considered a Chinese dissident. Wu told The Associated Press she was abducted from a hotel in Dubai and detained by Chinese officials at a villa converted into a jail, where she saw or heard two other prisoners, both Uyghurs.
She was questioned and threatened in Chinese and forced to sign legal documents incriminating her fiancé for harassing her, she said. She was finally released on June 8 and is now seeking asylum in the Netherlands.
While “black sites” are common in China, Wu’s account is the only testimony known to experts that Beijing has set one up in another country. Such a site would reflect how China is increasingly using its international clout to detain or bring back citizens it wants from overseas, whether they are dissidents, corruption suspects or ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs.
The AP was unable to confirm or disprove Wu’s account independently, and she could not pinpoint the exact location of the black site. However, reporters have seen and heard corroborating evidence including stamps in her passport, a phone recording of a Chinese official asking her questions and text messages that she sent from jail to a pastor helping the couple.
China’s Foreign Ministry denied her story. “What I can tell you is that the situation the person talked about is not true,” ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Monday.
Dubai Police stated Monday that any claims of a Chinese woman detained by local authorities on behalf of a foreign country are false, and that Wu freely exited the country with her friend three months ago.
“Dubai does not detain any foreign nationals without following internationally accepted procedures and local law enforcement processes, nor does it allow foreign governments to run any detention centers within its borders,” said a statement from the Dubai government media office.
“Dubai also follows all recognized global norms and procedures set by international organizations like Interpol in the detainment, interrogation and transfer of fugitives sought by foreign governments.”
Black sites are clandestine jails where prisoners generally are not charged with a crime and have no legal recourse, with no bail or court order. Many in China are used to stop petitioners with grievances against local governments, and they often take the form of rooms in hotels or guesthouses.
Yu-Jie Chen, an assistant professor at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, said she had not heard of a Chinese secret jail in Dubai, and such a facility in another country would be unusual. However, she also noted that it would be in keeping with China’s attempts to do all it can to bring select citizens back, both through official means such as signing extradition treaties and unofficial means such as revoking visas or putting pressure on family back home.
“(China) really wasn’t interested in reaching out until recent years,” said Chen, who has tracked China’s international legal actions. “This trend is increasingly robust.”
Chen said Uyghurs in particular were being extradited or returned to China, which has been detaining the mostly Muslim minority on suspicion of terrorism even for relatively harmless acts like praying. The Uyghur Human Rights Project tracked 89 Uyghurs detained or deported from nine countries from 1997 to 2007 through public reports. That number steadily increased to reach 1,327 from 20 countries from 2014 until now, the group found.
Wu and her fiancé, 19-year-old Wang Jingyu, are not Uyghur but rather Han Chinese, the majority ethnicity in China. Wang is wanted by China because he posted messages questioning Chinese media coverage of the Hong Kong protests in 2019 and China’s actions in a border clash with India.
Along with Uyghurs, China has been cracking down on perceived dissidents and human rights activists, and has launched a massive effort to get back suspect officials as part of a national anti-corruption campaign. Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader in decades, Beijing brought back 1,421 people in 2020 alone for alleged corruption and financial crime under Operation Skynet. However, the AP could not find comprehensive numbers for how many Chinese citizens overall have been detained or deported from overseas in recent years.
Dubai also has a history as a place where Uyghurs are interrogated and deported back to China. And activists say Dubai itself has been linked to secret interrogations involving other countries. Radha Stirling, a legal advocate who founded the advocacy group Detained in Dubai, said she has worked with about a dozen people who have reported being held in villas in the UAE, including citizens of Canada, India and Jordan but not China.
“There is no doubt that the UAE has detained people on behalf of foreign governments with whom they are allied,” Stirling said. “I don’t think they would at all shrug their shoulders to a request from such a powerful ally.”
However, Patrick Theros, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar who is now strategic advisor to the Gulf International Forum, called the allegations “totally out of character” for the Emiratis.
“They don’t allow allies freedom of movement,” he said. “The idea that the Chinese would have a clandestine center, it makes no sense.”
The U.S. State Department had no comment on Wu’s specific case or on whether there is a Chinese-run black site in Dubai.
“We will continue to coordinate with allies and partners to stand against transnational repression everywhere,” it said in a statement to the AP.
Held in a villa
Wu, a Chinese millennial with cropped hair dyed blonde, never cared about politics before. But after her fiancé was arrested in Dubai on April 5 on unclear charges, she started giving interviews to media and getting in touch with overseas-based Chinese dissidents for help.
On May 27, Wu said, she was questioned by Chinese officials at her hotel, the Element al-Jaddaf, and then taken by Dubai police to the Bur Dubai police station. Staff for the hotel declined in a phone interview to confirm her stay or her departure, saying it was against company policy to disclose information about guests.
She was held for three days at the police station, she said, with her phone and personal belongings confiscated. On the third day, she said, a Chinese man who introduced himself as Li Xuhang came to visit her. He told her he was working for the Chinese consulate in Dubai, and asked her whether she had taken money from foreign groups to act against China.
“I said no, I love China so much. My passport is Chinese. I’m a Chinese person. I speak Chinese,” she said. “I said, how could I do that?”
Li Xuhang is listed as consul general on the website of the Chinese consulate in Dubai. The consulate did not return multiple calls asking for comment and to speak with Li directly.
Wu said Li took her out of the police station along with another Chinese man who handcuffed her, and they put her in a black Toyota. There were multiple Chinese people in the car, but Wu was too scared to get a clear look at their faces.
Her heart thumping, they drove past an area where many Chinese lived and owned businesses in Dubai called International City, which Wu recognized from an earlier trip to Dubai.
After driving for half an hour, they stopped on a deserted street with rows of identical compounds. She was brought inside a white-colored villa with three stories, where a series of rooms had been converted into individual cells, she said.
The house was quiet and cold in contrast with the desert heat. Wu was taken to her own cell, a room which had been renovated to have a heavy metal door.
There was a bed in her room, a chair and a white fluorescent light that was on all day and night. The metal door remained closed except when they fed her.
“Firstly, there’s no sense of time,” Wu said. “And second, there’s no window, and I couldn’t see if it was day or night.”
Wu said a guard took her to a room several times where they questioned her in Chinese and threatened that she would never be allowed to leave. The guards wore face masks all the time.
She saw another prisoner, a Uyghur woman, while waiting to use the bathroom once, she said. A second time, she heard a Uyghur woman shouting in Chinese, “I don’t want to go back to China, I want to go back to Turkey.” Wu identified the women as Uyghurs based on what she said was their distinctive appearance and accent.
Wu said she was fed twice a day, with the second meal a stack of plain flatbread. She had to ask the guards for permission to drink water or go to the bathroom. She was supposed to be allowed to go the bathroom a maximum of five times a day, Wu said, but that depended on the mood of the guards.
The guards also gave her a phone and a SIM card and instructed her to call her fiancé and pastor Bob Fu, the head of ChinaAid, a Christian non-profit, who was helping the couple.
Wang confirmed to the AP that Wu called and asked him for his location. Fu said he received at least four or five calls from her during this time, a few on an unknown Dubai phone number, including one where she was crying and almost incoherent. She again blamed Wang and said Fu should not help him.
The AP also reviewed text messages Wu sent to Fu at the time, which are disjointed and erratic.
“I could tell she was hiding from telling me her whereabouts,” said Fu. “At that point we concluded that something has happened to her that prevented her from even talking.”
Wu said towards the end of her stay, she refused meals, screamed and cried in an effort to be released. The last thing her captors demanded of her, she said, was to sign documents in Arabic and English testifying that Wang was harassing her.
“I was really scared and was forced to sign the documents,” she told the AP. “I didn’t want to sign them.”
Hub for Chinese intelligence
Reports have emerged in recent years of Emiratis and foreigners being taken to villas, sometimes indefinitely.
Perhaps the best-known case involves Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai. Sheikha Latifa tried to flee in 2018 by boat, but was intercepted by the Indian coast guard in the Arabian Sea and handed back to the UAE.
In videos published by the BBC in February, she claims she was held against her will in a villa in Dubai.
“I’m a hostage,” she says in one of the videos. “This villa has been converted into jail.” A statement since issued on behalf of Sheikha Latifa said she is now free to travel.
China and the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, have deep economic and political ties and also work together on counterintelligence. China ratified an extradition treaty with the UAE in 2002 and a judicial cooperation treaty in 2008. The UAE was an experimental site for China’s COVID vaccines and cooperated with China on making tests.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE, has said he was willing to work with China to “jointly strike against terrorist extremist forces,” including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group Beijing has accused of fostering Uyghur separatism. In late 2017 and early 2018, local authorities arrested and deported at least five Uyghurs to China, according to four friends and relatives who spoke by phone with the AP.
In one case, a long-time UAE resident, Ahmad Talip, was called in for questioning at a local police station and detained, according to his wife, Amannisa Abdullah, who is now in Turkey. In another case, eight plainclothes officers broke into a hotel room and arrested a 17-year-old boy who had just fled a police raid in Egypt.
The detentions were carried out by Arabs who appeared to be UAE police, not Chinese agents, the Uyghurs said. However, one of the detainees, Huseyin Imintohti, was sought by three Chinese agents at a Uyghur restaurant in Dubai before his deportation, according to his wife, Nigare Yusup.
Another Uyghur detainee, Yasinjan Memtimin, was interrogated twice by people in the UAE who appeared to be Chinese police, said his wife, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution. She said she had heard from a Uyghur who fled overseas of a detention facility in the UAE where Uyghurs were detained and interrogated, but she could not offer more details.
The UAE appears to be a hub for Chinese intelligence on Uyghurs in the Middle East, former Uyghur residents told The AP. A Uyghur linguist, Abduweli Ayup, said he had spoken with three Uyghurs coerced into working as spies in Turkey who passed through Dubai to pick up SIM cards and cash and meet Chinese agents.
Jasur Abibula, a former Xinjiang government worker, also told the AP that Chinese state security lured him from the Netherlands to the UAE in 2019 after his ex-wife, Asiye Abdulaheb, obtained confidential documents on internment camps in Xinjiang. He was greeted by a dozen or so people working for the Chinese government in Dubai, he said, including at least two who introduced themselves as working for China’s Ministry of State Security.
One, a Uyghur man in his fifties who gave his name as Dolet, said he was stationed in Dubai. The other, a Han Chinese man who spoke fluent Uyghur, said he was on a mission to uncover the source of the leaks, according to Abibula.
The agents presented Abibula with a USB and asked him to insert it in his ex-wife’s computer. They offered him money, put him up in a Hilton resort and bought toys for his kids. They also threatened him, showing him a video of his mother back in China. On a drive through dunes of sand, one said it reminded him of the deserts back in Xinjiang.
“If we kill and bury you here, nobody will able to find your body,” he recalled them telling him. Abibula is now back in the Netherlands, where the AP spoke to him by phone, and he sent photos of some of the agents, his hotel and his plane ticket to support his claims.
Besides the UAE, many other countries have cooperated with China in sending Uyghurs back. In 2015, Thailand repatriated over 100 Uyghurs to China. In 2017, Egyptian police detained hundreds of Uyghur students and residents and sent them back as well.
Rodney Dixon, a London-based rights lawyer representing Uyghur groups, said his team has filed a case against Tajikistan in the International Criminal Court, accusing local authorities of aiding China in deporting Uyghurs.
China isn’t the first country to hunt people deemed terror suspects outside its borders. After 9/11, the U.S. government also operated and controlled a network of CIA clandestine detention facilities overseas in countries including Thailand, Lithuania and Romania. The CIA’s detention and interrogation program ended in 2009.
'I’m afraid to call you'
After Wu was released, she was taken back to the same hotel she had stayed at and given her personal belongings. She immediately reached out to Fu, apologized for her past calls and asked for help, in text messages seen by the AP.
“I’m afraid to call you,” she told Fu in one message. “I’m afraid I will be overheard.”
On June 11, she flew out of Dubai to Ukraine, where she was reunited with Wang.
After threats from Chinese police that Wang could face extradition from Ukraine, the couple fled again to the Netherlands. Wu said she misses her homeland.
“I’ve discovered that the people deceiving us are Chinese, that it’s our countrymen hurting our own countrymen,” she said. “That is the situation.”