Thousands of protesters marched in support of China’s Uighurs in Istanbul on Friday and voiced solidarity with Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil after the furore caused by his criticism of China’s policies toward the Muslim minority.
Last week, soccer star Ozil, a German Muslim of Turkish origin, posted messages on social media calling minority Uighurs “warriors who resist persecution” and criticized both China’s crackdown and the silence of Muslims in response.
Members of Istanbul crowd held up banners reading “Stop the cruelty” and chanted “Murderer China, get out of East Turkestan” and “East Turkestan is not alone”, using the name that Uighur exiles use for Xinjiang.
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 anti-terrorism campaign.
China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and its foreign ministry said Ozil had been deceived by “fake news”.
“Mesut Ozil’s honorable behavior inspired us... Everybody should raise their voice against this tyrant like Mesut did,” Adem Adil said, a protester marching with the crowd.
Turkey has in the past expressed concern about the situation in Xinjiang, including in February at the U.N. Human Rights Council, but has not commented over the Ozil affair.
At the Kuala Lumpur summit on Thursday, a question from the audience on the treatment of Uighurs was ignored after it was put to a dais that included Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Last Saturday, club Arsenal tried to distance itself from his comments, saying it always adhered to the principle of not being involved in politics.
Ozil has received support from former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who defended the player’s right to express his opinion.