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.
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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. The Chinese Consulate in Dubai did not respond to several requests for comment.
Dubai also did not respond to multiple phone calls and requests for comment to the Dubai police, the Dubai Media Office and the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
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.