More than 80 Harvard-trained lawyers petitioned the US and Chinese governments for the release of Ekpar Asat, a Uyghur entrepreneur who disappeared upon returning to China from a State Department program in the US. His sister Rayhan Asat attended Harvard.
Their two letters, both dated Tuesday, come as President Donald Trump is said to be expected to sign legislation aimed at holding Chinese officials accountable for crimes committed against Uyghurs and other minority ethnic communities in Xinjiang. Rayhan Asat, Ekpar’s sister and main advocate in the US, told CNN she hoped, “as (the) leader of the free world,” Trump would speak out about her brother’s alleged enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention at the hands of the Chinese government.
In 2016, Ekpar Asat participated in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). During the program, he traveled around the US, even visiting CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta. It had been “a moment of triumph” for him to be selected to participate in the prestigious professional exchange program, his sister Rayhan Asat told CNN.
That triumph didn’t last. The last time Rayhan saw Ekpar was during a quick visit to New York, where they shared a bite of pizza and Ekpar told her he’d be back for her Harvard Law graduation with their parents. Then, in early May, her parents told her they could no longer attend. Rayhan said she tried to get in touch with her brother and heard nothing back.
“He just kind of vanished,” she said.
Rayhan Asat told CNN that she was told he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination. She said she has not seen any documentation to corroborate his alleged sentencing.
CNN has reached out to the Chinese Embassy for comment.
The State Department estimates that more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups have been detained by the Chinese government in internment camps, where they are reportedly “subjected to torture, cruel and inhumane treatment such as physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and death.” The Chinese government claims their Xinjiang policy is “about fighting terrorism and separatism.”
In the letter to the Chinese government and the Chinese ambassador to the US, the lawyers – who hail from more than 50 countries – said Ekpar Asat’s “ordeal has touched and outraged us personally.”
“Like Mr. Asat, most of us travelled to the United States to further our education and training as leaders. We returned safely to our families in our home countries. We are devastated that Mr. Asat did not. We are deeply disturbed by the arbitrary nature of his detention, secret trial, and the lack of any basic sense of justice,” they wrote, calling for Ekpar Asat’s unconditional release.
Rayhan Asat said she does not know why her brother would have been targeted except for his participation in the State Department program, telling CNN that Ekpar Asat was an active community member who hosted events that were well-received by the government in Xinjiang.
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that they “have raised his case directly with the PRC government and will continue to do so,” but they “have been unable to independently verify his current status and whereabouts.” An unnamed State Department spokesperson said they “have no direct evidence” that his imprisonment is tied to his participation in the IVLP.
In a second letter to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and to various agencies of the Trump administration, the lawyers wrote that they “are particularly concerned that Mr. Asat’s participation in the US State Department’s International Leadership Visitors Program (IVLP) may have made him a target for the Chinese government.”
“Rayhan is now asking various US government agencies to escalate their efforts to free her brother. We join her call, and we ask that the US government work in concerted effort to secure Mr. Asat’s release, including working with the President of the United States,” they wrote.
The President has not spoken publicly about Ekpar Asat’s case. Rayhan Asat said she would like him to do so.
“Any sitting president … their words carry weight,” she said. “As (the) leader of the free world, I would hope that he would advocate for individuals like my brother.”
She also hopes he will sign the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act into law, but noted that “the bill’s success lies in its execution.”
“The bill can work to end this unspeakable human suffering if it results in effective sanctions against the Chinese officials responsible for these atrocities,” Rayhan Asat said.