The International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPro) on Wednesday expressed concern over the detention of a Uyghur former member of China’s national youth football team in the country’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and demanded his immediate release.
In February, footballer Erfan Hezim, 19, was detained in a “political re-education camp” for “visiting foreign countries” after he traveled abroad to train and take part in matches, sources recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
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.
On Wednesday, FIFPro—a Netherlands-based organization representing 65,000 professional footballers—said in a statement that it was “concerned” by reports of Hezim’s detention, calling him “one of China’s most promising young footballers.”
“FIFPro is calling for Erfan’s immediate release so that he can be reunited with his family and continue his football career,” said the group, which is made up of 60 national players’ associations. China is an “observer” nation to FIFPro, but not a member.
FIFPro noted that Hezim had scored a “stunning overhead kick” for China’s Under-19 team against Hungary last year—a video of which had gone viral online.
It said the footballer’s photo currently appears on Jiangsu Suning F.C.’s website, but that he had not played or trained with the team since February, citing New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, 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.
A Jiangsu Suning F.C. supporter told RFA in April 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.”
An official from the Police Central Command in Dorbiljin (in Chinese, Emin) county, in the XUAR’s Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) prefecture, told RFA Hezim had returned home to the area to visit his parents, and was detained while visiting a market in the county seat.
The official, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said the young man was being detained at the Jiaochu township re-education center.
A neighbor of Hezim’s parents also confirmed to RFA in April that he had been arrested and said that as an only child, his detention had been particularly hard on his mother.
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of the region 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 XUAR 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 Uyghur activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
Last 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 the detention of Uyghurs, which they termed "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
China’s national men’s football team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, which will be held in Russia from June 14-July 15.
The team advanced to the group stage only once—when the tournament was jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan in 2002—and failed to score a goal, finishing 31st out of 32 qualifiers.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.