Pompeo expresses support for Arsenal player in criticism of China's treatment of Uighurs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday came out in support of Arsenal player Mesut Ozil for his criticism of China’s treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims, saying Beijing can censor the team’s football games but cannot hide rights violations.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes a statement to the press at the State Department in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The Arsenal midfielder, a German Muslim of Turkish origin, last week in social media posts called Uighurs “warriors who resist persecution” and criticized both China’s crackdown and the silence of Muslims in response.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday removed Arsenal’s Premier League game against Manchester City from its broadcast schedule.

“China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor Mesut Ozil and Arsenal’s game all season long, but the truth will prevail,” Pompeo tweeted. “The CCP can’t hide its gross #humanrights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.”

The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that between 1 million and 2 million people, mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims, have been detained in harsh conditions in Xinjiang as part of what Beijing calls an antiterrorism campaign.

China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry said Ozil “had been completely deceived by fake news and false statements.”

Washington has been ratcheting up its criticism of Beijing over Uighurs simultaneously as it has continued its trade deal negotiations. U.S. President Donald Trump in November signed into law congressional legislation backing protesters in Hong Kong despite angry objections from China.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation requiring a stronger response to Beijing’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority.

What started as demonstrations against a now-withdrawn bill allowing extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China has morphed into calls for greater democratic freedoms and nearly six months of sometimes violent protests in Hong Kong. Beijing has condemned the unrest and blamed foreign interference.

Arsenal on Saturday tried to distance itself from Ozil’s comments after he posted messages on Twitter and Instagram. “The content he expressed is entirely Ozil’s personal opinion,” the official account of Arsenal said in a post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.

The controversy is the latest between the sports industry and China. In October, an executive from the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, expressed support for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, angering Beijing and suddenly putting on shaky ground the NBA’s estimated $4 billion market in China.

(This version of the story corrects final paragraph to say an executive from “the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets” instead of “the National Basketball Association”)

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Jonathan Oatis