'Nowhere to be found': Harvard coalition says US must fight to free young Uighur leader
Exclusive: More than 70 Harvard schools and student organisations sign open letter urging US state department to take stronger action over Ekpar Asat
Ekpar Asat, a young entrepreneur and journalist from Xinjiang, disappeared in 2016 after returning from the US where he had been on the exchange program and visited his sister Rayhan, a Harvard law student. He had promised to come back to the US in a few months with their parents to watch her become Harvard’s first ever Uighur graduate.
“My brother and I were so close, but it was also an exam period and I was so busy, I wasn’t talking to my family every day,” Rayhan told the Guardian.
“I know that he arrived home safely … but suddenly my parents cancelled their visit to the US for my graduation, and I was like ‘What’s happening’, but they wouldn’t tell me … None of it added up. He was nowhere to be found.”
Asat was taken into the expansive and internationally condemned Xinjiang detention system, part of a suite of Chinese government policies that experts say amount to cultural genocide. UN and other human rights experts have estimated more than a million people have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, for reasons including simply being of young age, or having relatives overseas.
Rayhan learned in January last year that he had been sentenced to 15 years’ jail for “inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination”.
This week more than 70 Harvard schools and student organisations signed an open letter urging the US state department to take stronger action in advocating for an alumnus of its prestigious International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP).
Sondra Anton, director of activism at Harvard Law School’s Advocates for Human Rights, and a key organiser of the campaign, said while there was some initial pushback, support “snowballed” and came from dozens of groups, including associations for students from multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds.
“It started a lot of conversations internally,” said Anton. “Are we going to be on the right side of history? Are we going to use our unique platforms to not just promote ourselves and our careers, but also others?”
Professor William Alford, Director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law, said he found Asat’s case “disturbing … I think it laudable that students express themselves on matters of conscience.”
The student-led campaign formed after Rayhan addressed a Harvard Law conference last year, telling the story of her brother for the first time.
“HLS Advocates and the undersigned student organizations from Harvard Law School, Harvard College, Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard Medical School, join the many Harvard alumni, scholars, members of Congress, and media outlets that have commended Rayhan’s bravery and strength, and continue to work to draw attention to her calls for Ekpar’s release,” the letter said.
Asat had been chosen for the IVLP because of his “dedication to philanthropy, and continuous effort in cultivating ethnic harmony, and greater understanding between the Han and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang Province of China”, a coalition of senators would later write to China’s ambassador (pdf). He had even been commended by state media inside China for his efforts.
Rayhan believes the timing of his US exchange and his detention are connected, but the state department has told the Guardian it holds no direct evidence that they are related. He is listed in the department’s 2019 human rights report among disappeared members of China’s Uighur community. The spokeswoman said the department was closely tracking his case, and would continue to raise it directly with the PRC government.
“We strongly condemn his ongoing imprisonment and call for his immediate release,” she said.
“Unfortunately, due to tight PRC controls on information, we have been unable to independently verify his current status and whereabouts, but we consistently press the PRC for this information whenever we raise his case.”
Under Donald Trump, the US has enacted sanctions and other measures targeting Chinese authorities over abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. Despite mounting evidence the Chinese Communist party denies all allegations of abuse and says the detention centres are education and training facilities designed to address terrorism and alleviate poverty.
Anton and Rayhan hoped the Harvard students’ letter will prompt other university communities to increase their advocacy, especially those which – like Harvard – are institutions of choice for the children of China’s leadership and elite.
“Harvard is taking a stance on something that deserves so much attention but these voices have been absent because of these relationships,” said Rayhan.
“You can’t remain bystanders to genocide when your own alumnus is suffering.”
Rayhan now lives and works in the US as a lawyer. Her parents are in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, where the population is subject to extensive surveillance, both human and technological. When Rayhan calls home the family can only make small talk.
“I feel like the Chinese government took away my relationship with my parents too,” she said.
‘This is a very lonely journey, and I hope it doesn’t have to be. The Harvard community made sure I’m not alone in this fight to bring Ekpar home.”