Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have detained 24-year-old Uyghur Erpat Ablekrem—an aspiring professional footballer—in a “political re-education camp” after he maintained contact with family members who fled the country, according to his cousin.
Ablekrem, also known by his Chinese name Aierpati Abulaikeremu, was detained from his hometown of Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city, in the XUAR’s Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture in March last year and sent to a “political re-education camp” in the area, his cousin Muyesser Abdulehet told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The young man, who had played goal keeper for a variety of teams both inside the XUAR and in China’s Shandong province, is believed to have been detained for maintaining contact with Abdulehet after she and her family fled Beijing’s repressive policies in the region and resettled in Turkey, she said.
“I received news that he had been taken to a re-education camp in March last year,” Abdulehet said, referring to the vast network of facilities where authorities have detained Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas throughout the XUAR since April 2017.
“I believe he is still in Ghulja in one of the regional re-education camps,” she added.
Abdulehet said she had learned of her cousin’s detention from “an acquaintance” as all of her relatives in the XUAR had removed her from their contact lists, out of fear of persecution by local authorities.
“He is the only one in the family who has been arrested, and I believe the reason for his arrest is that he kept in contact with us,” she said.
Abdulehet said she had last heard from Ablekrem in January last year, when he left a voice message on her WeChat account.
“Because he loved me dearly, we kept in touch via WeChat,” she said.
“I rarely contacted him because I didn't want him to get into trouble, but he occasionally would leave a voice message for me.”
According to information posted by football fans on social media, Ablekrem began playing football in primary school in Ghulja at the age of seven, and was selected to play in a national tournament for pupils held in Shandong at the age of 10.
He played for a number of teams in Ghulja and competed in several tournaments in the XUAR, as well as for an affiliate of China’s Super League team Shandong Luneng Taishan F.C., as part of its National Under 17 Youth League squad.
Abdulehet said the young man had been studying city planning at university, but left after two years to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
She said that he told her he had tried out with a team “in Mainland China” and received praise from the manager, but was rejected “because I am a Uyghur.”
After he returned to Ghulja, Ablekrem took a job as a taxi driver because “footballers from our region can’t really make a living from playing,” she said.
“Erpat is not only a hardworking professional young man, but he is also very cultured and polite,” Abdulehet said, adding that “it really hurts me when I think of him being locked up.”
Juret Zahir, a prominent former football coach from the XUAR who is now living in the U.S., noted that Ablekrem’s arrest followed that of Chinese Super League forward Erfan Hezim, also known by his Chinese name Ye Erfan, in February last year.
Hezim, who began playing professionally at the age of 15, and in July 2017 inked a five-year contract with Jiangsu Suning F.C., was detained in a re-education camp for “visiting foreign countries” after he traveled abroad to train and take part in matches, according to sources.
Zahir said the detentions indicate that Chinese authorities are systematically targeting the “best and brightest” of the Uyghur community in a bid to undermine ethnic pride.
“They have locked up our top businessmen, intellectuals, artists, and even our athletes, who are the elite representatives of our [people],” he said.
“Countries rarely mix politics with sports, but the Chinese government creates excuses to lock up Uyghur leaders from all professions.”
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, chairman of the XUAR, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October last year that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.