Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region have detained 19-year-old Uyghur Erfan Hezim—a former member of China’s national youth football team—in a “political re-education camp” for “visiting foreign countries” after he traveled abroad to train and take part in matches, according to local sources.
Hezim, also known by his Chinese name Ye Erfan, is a top soccer forward in the Chinese Super League who began playing professionally at the age of 15, and in July last year inked a five-year contract with Jiangsu Suning F.C.
Two months ago, during winter break, Hezim returned home to visit his parents in Dorbiljin (in Chinese, Emin) county, in Xinjiang’s Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) prefecture, and was detained by police while visiting a market in the county seat, an official from the Dorbijin Police Central Command told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Erfan Hezim was detained by officers from the Dorbiljin Market Police Station,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Currently, he is being detained at the Jiaochu township reeducation center. He was detained two months ago for visiting foreign countries.”
An officer who answered the phone at the Dorbiljin Market Police Station told RFA he “can’t say where Hezim is currently being held,” and referred further inquiries back to the Dorbijin Police Central Command.
A neighbor of Hezim’s parents confirmed to RFA that he had been detained and said his family was in shock.
“They have not been able to see Erfan once over the past two months,” the neighbor said, adding that as an only child, his detention had been particularly hard on Hezim’s mother.
“Erfan’s mother is ill. She has been crying nonstop for the past two months since Erfan was detained. She is losing herself—she cries and murmurs, so it is difficult to know what she is saying.”
A Jiangsu Suning F.C. supporter told RFA that Hezim had visited Spain from Jan. 10-30 and Dubai from Feb. 3-15, adding that his travel was “not for personal reasons, but for training and match purposes.”
Since April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Official announcements have stated that those who are sent to the camps include former prisoners, suspects and anyone who has travelled overseas, and say the camps will “cleanse” them of ideology that endangers state security.
Last month, sources told RFA that authorities in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous prefecture, where Tarbaghatay prefecture is located, have added “interest in travel abroad” to the list of reasons they are detaining Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region’s vast network of re-education camps and prisons.
Call for information
Reports of Hezim’s detention emerged as the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group issued a call for information about “disappearances or arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs” in Xinjiang’s re-education camps.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the WUC said it is creating a list bearing the names, dates of birth, city of residence, and dates and circumstances of detention, of individuals held in the camps, which it plans to submit to various institutions of the European Union, and “demand that the EU take action to push for their immediate release.”
China’s central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of Xinjiang have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of Xinjiang residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith—the chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China—called on U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit Xinjiang and gather information on senior officials responsible for the mass surveillance and detention of Uyghurs to determine whether Washington should level sanctions against them.
In a letter to the Ambassador, the lawmakers called the camp network in Xinjiang “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called “two-faced” Uyghur officials—a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty.”
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for “terrorist” attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.