Uyghur entrepreneur sentenced to 15 years after attending a training program in the US
Rayhan Asat usually works as a litigation lawyer in Washington D.C., but over hte last few years, she has been trying to determine the whereabouts of his brother, Ekpar Asat, who disappeared since he returned to Xinjiang from a training program run by the State Department in 2016. Based on Beijing’s definition, all members from her family are “model Uyghur citizens,” and her brother has even been described by state-run media as “bridge builder” between the Uyghurs and the rest of China. So why would he disappear after completing a training program run by the State Department?
During the day, Rayhan Asat is a international litigation lawyer who specializes in anti-corruption and international investigation cases. However, she has also been busy advocating for her younger brother who disappeared after going back to Xinjiang in 2016.
Her brother, Ekpar Asat, is an entrepreneur who created a popular social media app used by many Uyghurs. In 2016, he attended a leadership training program run by the US State Department. However, he disappeared several weeks after he returned to Xinjiang.
In January, Asat indirectly learned from the Chinese Embassy in the US that her brother had been charged with “inciting ethnic hatred” and sentenced to 15 years by the Chinese authority.
“When I learned about my brother’s 15-year sentence, I told myself ‘I can’t sit back any longer,” Asat said. From then on, she began to reach out to media outlets and shared the story of her brother’s disappearance. While Asat hasn’t lost contact with her parents in Xinjiang, she didn’t want her activism to put them in dangerous positions. As a result, she tried to limit their conversation to small talks.
“Now that I’m speaking out, I think I would put them under surveillance for sure,” said Asat. “But I also want my brother back. As an attorney, I go into court to defend others but yet I can’t do anything to help my brother. I think that shook me at my core.”
The last call
When Ekpar Asat was attending the training program in the US, he only got to meet his sister twice. Since Asat was studying at Harvard Law School, they made a deal that Ekpar Asat would take their parents to attend his sister’s graduation ceremony in May, 2016.
“On the day when he was leaving the US from San Francisco on March 15, 2016, he told me that ‘I’m leaving now and I will see you at your graduation,’” said Asat. “At the time I thought ‘great, I will see you soon.’”
When her brother got back to Xinjiang, they remained in contact for a while. However, when Asat tried to confirm details about their trip to attend her graduation ceremony in early May, 2016, her parents suddenly told her that they couldn’t go to the US and attend her graduation ceremony.
Asat was confused by their response, so she tried to confirm the details with her brother. “I sent messages to him but I never heard back from him,” Asat said. “Then I called him so many times, and there was nothing. I called his office and tried to get in touch with people to learn about what happened to him. There was still nothing.”
“That led me to believe that something has happened to him, but I remained hopeful” Asat said. “I thought sometimes the Chinese government detains people but they would release them later. I thought that could be the case. I waited and I waited but I still got nothing about him.”
In Fall, 2016, Asat began to work as an attorney in Washington D.C., and a few months later in December, 2016, Asat informed the State Department about her brother’s disappearance. The State Department told her they would inform their counterparts in Beijing, but months went by, Asat still didn’t get any updates about her brother.
After working with the State Department for three years, Asat decided to reach out to Sheridan Bell, the former senior manager at the Meridian International Center, who managed the training program for the State Department when Asat’s brother attended.
With the help from Bell, Asat began to contact several US senators, and in December, 2019, Senator Chris Coons and 7 other American senators sent a joint letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, asking the Chinese government to release Ekpar Asat immediately.
“Model Uyghur Citizens”
In fact, Asat’s family members are all “model Uyghur citizens” based on Beijing’s definition. Both of her parents are Communist Party members, and his brother had been invited to attend several events organized by the local government.
“The state-run media call my brother ‘a positive force,’ and they also described him as ‘a bridge builder,’” Asat said. “That’s the kind of comments they had made about him. They treat my brother as if his contribution doesn’t matter. His imprisonment made me realize that as long as you are Uyghur, you are forever at risk of being detained by the government. It doesn’t matter how much you conform to the government’s definition of model citizens. That was the case of my brother.”
The leadership training program
The program that Ekpar Asat attended has trained more than 225,000 people since 1940, and some prominent alumni of the program include former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and current New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
According to Asat, her brother was the only ethnic minority in the Chinese delegation during the 2016 cohort. The program was run and organized by Meridian International Center. Former senior manager of the program, Sheridan Bell, described Ekpar Asat as intelligent and courteous.
“When he was attending the program, he made it clear that even though he was representing China, he was proud to be the member of the Uyghurs,” said Bell. “He also was very articulate in describing his work and what he hoped to get from the program in the US.”
According to Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, Chinese citizens usually need some form of government approval in order to attend the training program organized by the State Department.
“This is a very telling case about how hostile Chinese authorities are to Uyghurs who have contacts or connections abroad, or even having spent time overseas,” Richardson said. “We see this time and time again.”
Richardson pointed out that since Ekpar Asat was sentenced to 15 years due to his participation in the training program organized by the State Department, so Washington should be more public about what inquiries they’ve made regarding this case and the State Department should also have an internal discussion about whether it can be safe for people from China, especially those from vulnerable communities, to participate in these programs.
“If the risks of participating in the program have outweighed the benefits of participating in such program, I think participants need to be informed,” Richardson said.
Since Asat went public with the story, her brother’s case began to attract more attention internationally, but that also made Asat feel a bit emotionally overwhelmed. “I think now the world is watching and if they retaliate by detaining my parents, I will be even louder,” Asat said. “I don’t think they are dared to do that, hopefully not.”
“I hope my brother’s case can shine a light on the larger cause for sure. I think I’m going to work with human rights organizations and I will ask them to join the call. I will have a strategy to elevate this case, and let the world see you can’t just detain somebody if he is a bridge builder.”
This article first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.