Two Uyghur men detained in Saudi Arabia are facing the prospect of being sent back to China while a human rights organization is working to stop that possibility.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says it is urging Saudi Arabia to refrain from "imminent" deportation of two Uyghur men held "arbitrarily" in the country.
HRW's Middle East/North Africa (MENA) Division deputy director, Adam Coogle, encourages countries to pressure Saudi Arabia not to send Uyghurs back to China. He said Saudi Arabia has "frequently and flagrantly violated" the human rights principle of nonrefoulement, the idea that countries should not return refugees to a place where they face a well-founded fear of persecution or torture.
"If Saudi Arabia deports these men, it is likely upon a request from China — unfortunately Saudi Arabia has no asylum system nor is there any way for these men to legally challenge their deportations," Coogle told VOA in an email.
The two Uyghur men have been held in al-Dhahban prison in Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia, since November 2020.
Some of the Uyghurs following this case believe one of the Uyghur men detained by Saudi police, 53-year-old Hemdullah Abduweli, also known as Aimidoula Waili on his Chinese passport, was taken into custody at the request of the Chinese embassy in Saudi Arabia to be deported to China. They think this happened after Abduweli gave a speech condemning China for its persecution of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region to other Uyghurs in his community, said Abduweli's daughter, Nuriman Hemdullah, in Istanbul.
A father in hiding
"My father went to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim pilgrimage, Hajj, on February 3 of 2020," Nuriman Hemdullah told VOA, adding that she and her father had sought refuge in Turkey since 2016.
"But when he finished his pilgrimage, borders closed due to COVID-19 pandemic, and he was forced to stay there longer," she said.
Later that year, Abduweli went into hiding, she said.
"Other Uyghurs told my father that he was being searched by the Saudi police," Hemdullah said, adding that her father went to hiding in another Uyghur man's residence in the country.
In November 2020, Saudi police detained Abduweli and another Uyghur man, 45-year-old Nurmemet Rozi, who is also known by his Chinese name, Nuermaimaiti Ruze, who helped hide Abduweli in his home.
The Chinese embassy in Saudi Arabia has not responded to VOA's repeated requests for comment on this case.
'Mentally prepared' for China
After 14 months in prison, on January 3, these two Uyghur men were told by Saudi authorities to be "mentally prepared" to be sent back to China, according to Abduweli Ayup, a human rights activist and founder of Uyghur Hjelp, a human rights organization based in Norway.
A "Uyghur source" told Ayup that she got the news from the detainees directly, he said.
"The source is afraid to speak to the media directly, because she also lives under immense threat of being caught or even deported back to China," Ayup told VOA.
"Since 2017 there were five Uyghur men deported to China from Saudi Arabia," Ayup said, adding that the fate of Abduweli and Rozi will be the same if there's no help from rights organizations and Western democratic countries.
The United States, along with other countries and human rights organizations, condemns China's treatment of Uyghurs as genocide and crimes against humanity, saying Beijing has put more than 1 million of the Turkic Muslim group in internment camps in the Xinjiang region.
China defends its actions as measures of counterterrorism and extremism in the region by saying that the facilities are not internment camps but only "vocational and educational training centers" where people learn to understand "the law, vocational skills and deradicalization," according to state media China Daily.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia and 36 other countries signed a U.N. letter that commended China's policies and treatment of Uyghurs as "remarkable achievements" in the field of human rights.
When Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Muhammed bin Salman, visited Beijing in 2019, he defended China and said it is the country's right to fight anti-extremism and struck a $10 billion deal between China and his country.
VOA sent questions regarding the detention of these two Uyghur men to the embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., but has not received a response.