Egyptian authorities on Wednesday transferred scores of detained students from China’s Uighur community to a massive prison complex in Cairo for interrogation alongside Chinese officials, students and campaigners from the ethnic minority said.
Egypt appears to be assisting China in a crackdown on the group as Cairo looks to Beijing as a key ally and source of much-needed investment, including in mega-projects like the construction of a new capital and an expansion of the Suez Canal.
Egyptian authorities, in coordination with Beijing, have detained about 120 students this month, with at least 80 still held, advocate Abduweli Ayup said from Turkey.
Others put the total figure near 200.
Chinese authorities have been waging a wide-scale security crackdown in Xinjiang, which officials say is necessary to curb extremism.
Beijing is also reportedly seeking the immediate return of Uighurs studying abroad.
Overseas Uighurs and human rights groups said the measures have turned Xinjiang into a police state, with widespread arbitrary detentions and invasive surveillance.
The detentions in Egypt underline Beijing’s determination to extend its reach abroad to a popular destination for religious study among China’s Muslims, many of whom attend the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Uighur students who have gone underground in Egypt said friends inside the notorious Tora prison told them that Egyptian police are collecting students who were detained elsewhere and bringing them there for possible deportation at Beijing’s request.
“The Egyptian Interior Ministry is gathering all the detained Turkistani students in Egypt from different police stations and airports and is transporting them all to Tora prison, and is starting to interrogate the students before Chinese investigators,” they said in an Arabic-language statement.
The broad sweep in Cairo included raids at restaurants, apartments and a supermarket.
On July 1, a masked SWAT team stormed a Uighur restaurant and arrested nearly 40 Uighurs inside, witnesses and advocates said.
Neither the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior nor the Chinese embassy in Cairo responded to requests for comment, although a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman in Beijing had previously acknowledged the detentions by saying the individuals would receive consular visits.
He gave no further details.
A message in the Uighur language circulated by advocates on social media and signed by a woman who identified herself only as “the wife of Qari” said that she had been allowed to see her detained husband, and that his and the students’ condition was dire.
“The police from China are forcing them to accept their ‘crime’ and they are not getting enough food to eat,” she said, adding that about 10 students were being held in Cairo’s Ain Shams detention center.
Students have also reported fellow Uighurs being held in other police stations across the sprawling Egyptian capital.
Videos shared on social media earlier this month purportedly showed more than 70 Uighurs sitting on a floor in a government building and others being driven in a truck in handcuffs.
Egyptian officials denied Uighurs were being held at Cairo’s international airport for deportation at the time, but declined to comment further.
It was not possible to independently verify the videos or the woman’s statement.
Lucia Parrucci, a spokeswoman for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, a Brussels-based advocacy group, said that about 150 students are at immediate risk for deportation to China, where they face immediate imprisonment, and where some of their families have been detained to encourage their return.
“We have learned that many of the students have been arrested directly at the airport upon their return and sent to re-education camps,” she said. “None of them have been able to see family members and no information was provided to their families about their whereabouts.”
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