The United States on Sunday criticised China’s choice of an ethnic Uyghur to carry the Olympic torch, calling it an effort by Beijing to “distract us” from the mistreatment of the minority group.

The appearance Friday of Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a 20-year-old cross-country skier, as the final torch bearer thrust her — and the Uyghur question — squarely onto the world stage.

Dinigeer Yilamujiang
Chinese torchbearer athletes Dinigeer Yilamujian (L) and Zhao Jiawen hold the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP.

“This is an effort by the Chinese to distract us from the real issue here at hand,” US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Sunday on CNN: “that Uyghurs are being tortured, and Uyghurs are the victims of human rights violations by the Chinese.”

She added: “We know that a genocide has been committed there. We’ve called them out on it. The president has called them out on it.”

China’s ruling Communist Party has been accused of widespread human rights abuses against the mostly Muslim minority from the far-northwestern region of Xinjiang.

At least one million Uyghurs have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, rights campaigners say, and Chinese authorities have been accused of forcibly sterilizing women and imposing forced labor in the area.

Beijing, which hopes to use the Winter Olympics to draw attention to China’s dynamic growth and increasingly prominent global role, has denied all allegations of abuse or genocide, and exhorted its critics to stop “politicizing” the Games.

beijing Olympics 2022 winter
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Photo: Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has played down the controversial pick of torch-bearer.

Yilamujiang had “every right” to participate, said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. “We don’t discriminate against people on where they’re from, what their background is.”

The United States, Australia, Britain and Canada were among countries that did not send diplomatic representatives to the Winter Games because of rights concerns, especially over the Uyghurs.

Yilamujiang, whose smiling face was seen by millions around the world, was not considered one of China’s most accomplished athletes.

At the Games on Saturday, she finished 43rd in the skiathlon race.

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