A Sister’s Plea for Her Brother’s Freedom
Before he was placed in solitary confinement in January 2019, Ekpar Asat cut the nails of fellow detainees in a Xinjiang concentration camp for Uighurs, an ethnic minority based in Northwest China. The elderly prisoners’ hands shook too much to do it themselves, according to Ekpar’s sister, Rayhan Asat, L.L.M. ’16, who lives in the United States and is fighting for the release of her brother, a political prisoner of the Chinese government.
With gestures of kindness like these, she said, her brother remains a source of hope and comfort to those around him. “He’s apparently uplifting people, he’s helping people even while incarcerated,” continued Asat, the first Uighur student to attend Harvard Law School (HLS). “I don’t know if it’s because of that, that [the Chinese government] realized that they needed to isolate him from everybody. His charismatic personality, charm, and positive energy always inspire people.”
A tech entrepreneur who developed a social-media platform for Uighurs, Ekpar’s “dedication to philanthropy” and “continuous effort in cultivating ethnic harmony” earned him an invitation to the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in 2016. Upon returning home to China, however, he was detained and shuttered away in the country’s network of nominal “re-education centers.”
Human-rights groups estimate that at least one million Uighurs are being held in these camps, which are sites of torture and enforced sterilization, according to a 2021 report from the U.S. State Department. The report concluded that China “is committing genocide and crimes against humanity.”
“Uighurs became synonymous with the concentration camps, and it’s just simply so sad,” Asat said. “The word Uighur actually means ‘united’…. There’s just this beautiful community of togetherness, and I think that is the foundation of the Uighur culture.”
Asat has not been united with her family in five years. They were set to attend her Law School graduation in 2016, but abruptly called off the trip, citing illness. Asat didn’t know then about Ekpar’s arrest—the real reason for the cancellation. But she had a feeling something was awry, especially after she wasn’t able to get in touch with her brother. As she heard more about the worsening plight of Uighurs in the region, his fate came into focus.
Years later, in January 2020, Beijing officially confirmed the picture Asat had pieced together. In response to a letter from seven senators urging Ekpar’s release, the Chinese government stated that he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for “inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination.” In a tweet, a division of the State Department deemed them “sham charges”: “No trial, no lawyer, no evidence, no due process, no justice. His crime? Being [Uighur].”
Asat said she felt anguished over whether to go public with her story. Her quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts to secure her brother’s release were proving fruitless, but she didn’t want to endanger her family by speaking out.
“We talked it through backwards and forwards and inside and out for a long time,” said her friend and classmate Amy C. Woolfson, L.L.M. ’16. The pair took a class in negotiation theory, Woolfson added, but best practices were difficult to translate across “a whole different culture.” She and Asat deliberated the central question “again and again and again”: “Do you call out the Chinese government, or do you try to find a way to make it easy for them to change their position?”
Cohen professor of law William Alford, director of the East Asian legal studies program, who met Asat when she was a student in 2016, helped guide her through this crossroads. “I did, indeed, initially counsel that she try back channels to secure information about her brother’s detention. She did that assiduously and with the assistance of several people with deep knowledge of and strong contacts in China,” he wrote in an email. “Those efforts were largely unsuccessful and so, understandably, she made the difficult decision to take a more public approach.”
Alford moderated the March 2020 event at which Asat went public with the story of her brother’s imprisonment. At the forum, hosted by HLS Advocates for Human Rights and entitled “Surveilled, Detained, Disappeared: Repression in Xinjiang,” Asat embarked on her still-accelerating advocacy journey.
“It was a really momentous decision,” Woolfson said. Asat described speaking out at the forum as a “defining moment” in her life: “I felt like every person in that classroom was trying to take away some of the pain,” she said. “It was that moment I realized that I have a community that I could lean on—that would support me no matter what.”
Asat has continued to receive support from across the University. In January 2021, more than 70 Harvard student organizations signed onto a statement calling for the release of her brother; that February, almost 200 affiliates across the University signed a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken ’84 calling attention to Ekpar’s plight.
“The ability to showcase individual stories is so important when it comes to these really wide-ranging tragedies,” said Tzofiya M. Bookstein ’23, who heads the Harvard Human Rights Working Group—an activist organization for undergraduates run out of the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights. The working group partnered with HLS Advocates for Human Rights to draft the statement and letter to Blinken. In April, they also hosted a virtual event commemorating the five years that had passed since Ekpar’s disappearance, where U.S. Senator Chris Coons and 300th Anniversary University Professor Martha Minow delivered opening remarks.
“Rayhan’s courage, knowledge, and tenacity have brought global attention but as yet no success to the detention of her brother,” Minow wrote in an email. “It is gratifying to see so many in the Harvard community joining in her efforts.”
As a result of her efforts, Ekpar’s story has appeared in the The New York Times, the Guardian, and on CNN, NBC, the BBC, and a number of other outlets. Meanwhile, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, and former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power, the Tom-Lantos Human Rights Foundation, the China Congressional-Executive Commission, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for Ekpar’s release. In March, a group of senators invoked Ekpar in a resolution condemning the China for its treatment of Uighurs, and in July, members of the U.S. House of Representatives named him in a bill that aims to protect the ethnic group’s human rights.
When Asat speaks to her parents, however, she’s limited to small talk; it’s too dangerous to discuss her advocacy. “That really breaks my heart because I want them to know that their son is revered not just at home in Xinxiang, but also internationally,” she said. “Members of Congress are talking about him, and his name has been written into U.S. bills.”
Though her parents are blind to the spotlight on their son, Asat’s work has won them two calls with Ekpar—a three-minute video in late January, and a 10-minute follow-up in late July. Her brother may have “looked like a shadow of his former self,” Asat said, but his words were true to his lifelong ethos: “Be kind,” he told his parents. “Be kind to everybody.”
Asat—who describes herself as the “perfect target” for the “re-education” camps—cannot return home to see or support her parents. The separation is especially difficult now that her father has been diagnosed with lung cancer: “The Chinese government not only took away my brother but also took away this beautiful relationship of us as a family.”
Still, Asat is pushing on. She has been named a 2021 World Fellow at Yale, and has also joined the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council, where—according to a June press release—she will “lead a portfolio of strategic legal work to seek redress and bring an end to the mass atrocities currently perpetrated against her brother…and millions of other Uyghurs.”
Beyond her legal work, Asat hopes to dispel misconceptions about the Uighur people. “The Chinese government has been portraying Uighurs as backward—people who need to be ‘re-educated,’” she said. “The very fact that I’m a highly educated person destroys this narrative that they have been presenting to the world.”
“When people know that I actually studied at Harvard, one of the finest institutions in the world, I think the perception totally changes in the minds of people—they no longer look at Uighur people as distant, exotic, in the far reaches of China,” she said. “Suddenly it [is] as if this is their next-door neighbor; this is happening to somebody they know. It could happen to any Harvard graduate.”
“She is really a teacher to us,” said Joshua Moriarty ’21, a member of the Harvard Human Rights Working Group. He and his fellow students are hoping to hold an in-person rally for Ekpar’s freedom on or near campus this coming semester.
Asat said it’s incumbent upon alumni to take action, too—especially those in the policy-making world. Alumni in business might have an even greater responsibility to step up, she said. “The business community, they think that they need the Chinese economy. But the Chinese economy needs them as much. Corporations are uniquely positioned to change the Chinese government’s behavior and end this unspeakable human tragedy.”
When Ekpar is released, Asat said, she plans to take him “home” to Harvard—the place pivotal to the success of her activism. “Although I launched my public campaign only a little over a year ago, commentators refer to me as a prominent and influential voice for the Uighur cause,” she said. “I attribute my success to my Harvard education.”
Asat also wants Ekpar to meet all those who have championed his cause. “I really hope that he gets to see this much love. Because right now, he thinks he’s forgotten. He doesn’t have any idea what’s happening. One day, he will!”