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What Happens to Uyghurs After Competing in the Olympics?

Dinigeer Yilamujiang of China competes during the women's sprint free cross-country skiing competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 8, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.
Dinigeer Yilamujiang of China competes during the women's sprint free cross-country skiing competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 8, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.

Amid international condemnation of its treatment of its Uyghur minority, China selected Uyghur athlete Dilnigar Ilhamjan (Dinigeer Yilamujiang in Chinese) for the honor of lighting the 2022 Olympic flame. The 20-year-old cross-country skier can only hope to fare better than the last Uyghur to be so honored.

That was Adil Abdurehim, a Uyghur who served as a torchbearer at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and was arrested nine years later. Radio Free Asia reported last week that Abdurehim “is serving a 14-year jail sentence for watching counter-revolutionary videos.”

Like Ilhamjan, Abdurehim was also hailed by Chinese authorities as “a pride and representative of the Chinese people,” said his cousin Abduweli Ayup in an interview with VOA. Charging that Abdurehim has been “used as Chinese propaganda tool” in 2008, Ayup said his cousin “was thrown in jail after his role ended up, his role at the Olympics wasn’t able to save him."

Ayup, a Norway-based Uyghur activist, said that he has collected information about other Uyghur athletes and torchbearers who participated in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and who have since faced persecution of themselves or their families.

One of those was Kamalturk Yalqun, a 2008 Olympic torchbearer and now an activist, who called for the boycott of the 2022 Games.

In 2016, Chinese authorities arrested his father, renowned literary critic and Uyghur literature textbook editor Yalqun Rozi. The elder Yalqun was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of separatism.

“For decades, the stereotypical ‘happily dancing Uyghur’ has served as a puppet of propaganda for China’s official ‘ethnic unity and harmony’ narrative,” the younger Yalqun told VOA.

“This time, a Uyghur athlete was given an honor in front of the world to make the case for the same narrative.”

Uyghur rights activists are not the only ones to dismiss the selection of Dilnigar Ilhamjan to light the flame as a cynical effort by China to deflect criticism of its behavior in its western Xinjiang province, where an estimated 1 million Turkic Muslims are being detained.

Britain, Canada, Australia and several other countries joined the United States in protesting what some have labeled genocidal activity in Xinjiang by refusing to send their diplomats to the Olympics.

After the flame-lighting ceremony, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told CNN that China’s choice of a Uyghur as one of two athletes to light the Olympic torch was “an effort by the Chinese to distract us” from the real issue.

“Uyghurs are being tortured, and Uyghurs are the victims of human rights violations by the Chinese. We have to keep that front and center,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, posted a statement on the embassy website rejecting his U.S. counterpart’s remark, saying that “lies by the US about the ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang’ have already been debunked by facts.”

“People of all ethnic groups there are enjoying a peaceful, harmonious and happy life,” Zhang said in the statement. Dilnigar Ilhamjan “is the pride and excellent representative of the Chinese people. On what ground does the U.S. has such inexplicable anger over this? And why?”

As for Ilhamjan, she vanished from public view after her cross-country skiing appearance on Feb. 5 where she finished 43rd.

Ayup, a Norway-based Uyghur activist, says he is not surprised by her perceived silence.

“Dilnigar Ilhamjan might one day end up in prison for a simple reason, being a Uyghur,” Ayup said, adding that he hopes the “international community pays attention to Dilnigar Ilhamjan’s fate” even after the Olympics.