Sister of Uyghur entrepreneur believed to be detained in China urges Biden to act over 'unspeakable injustice'

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

(CNN) — Almost five years ago, Ekpar Asat disappeared upon returning to China after participating in a prestigious State Department program in the United States.

His sister, Rayhan, has not seen or heard from him since, but believes he is one of the up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities detained by the Chinese government in internment camps in China's Xinjiang region.

In an interview, Rayhan told CNN about her concerns for her brother's well-being, the risks she is taking by campaigning for his release and her hopes that the Biden administration will more forcefully tackle China over what's happening in Xinjiang.

"I'm truly outraged as to what has happened to him. This is unspeakable injustice. No family should experience anything like this. But we are," she said.

Rayhan, a Harvard-trained lawyer now based in the United States, said her brother was a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist who she says was extolled by the Chinese government as "a bridge builder and a positive force." In 2016, he participated in the US State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program. He said he would be back for her Harvard graduation in May of that year. Then, right before graduation, her family canceled their trip.

"When I tried to reach out to my brother and ask, 'What has happened? You made a promise to come to here, in fact you encouraged me to prioritize my education because you're coming back in two months,' he was unreachable. He was nowhere to be found," she recounted.

'Absolutely unrecognizable'

The US government estimates that millions of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities have been detained in internment camps in the region in China's northwest, and both the Biden and Trump administrations have accused Beijing of carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity. The Chinese government has denied these allegations and said the camps are necessary to prevent religious extremism and terrorism.

Rayhan said she was told by US lawmakers that her brother 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.

"Years have gone by and I'm still looking for answers," she told CNN.

However, Rayhan said Ekpar was recently seen in a video -- and the images were said to be shocking. She has not seen them herself and CNN has not verified the video, but Ekpar was described to her as "absolutely unrecognizable."

"He lost tremendous weight. He looks like a bone with a human face," she was told. "It was just absolutely shocking."

She said she recently learned that he was kept in what she describes as concentration camps until 2019 and is now being kept in solitary confinement.

CNN has reached out to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Chinese government for comment. The State Department is closely tracking his case, a spokesperson told CNN.

"We condemn his ongoing imprisonment and call on (People's Republic of China) authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally," the spokesperson said. "We have raised his case directly with the PRC government, and will continue to raise his case at every available opportunity."

"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," the spokesperson said.

'I think I would also disappear'

Although she is based in the United States, Rayhan said her advocacy on behalf of her brother puts her family and herself at risk.

She fears for her parents' safety every time she speaks out, she told CNN, and if she returned, "I think I would also disappear into the shadows of these internment camps."

The decision to start speaking out a year ago, despite the risks, "was the most important and yet daunting decision that I've ever made in my life," Rayhan told CNN.

"I'm here to protect my brother. He's not just nobody. You know, he has a sister who loves him so much, that would fight for him every day," she said.

As part of that fight, Rayhan has also begun using the new social media platform Clubhouse to host conversations about what happened to her brother and to discuss the internment camps broadly. She says thousands of people have tuned in to the conversations from around the world.

Rayhan is urging the Biden administration to put the issue at the center of its China policy.

"I would love to have an opportunity to make a case for President (Joe) Biden and Secretary (Antony) Blinken that any sort of future engagement with China has to have some sort of conditions, and one of which is to release my brother," she said. "At the end of the day, whether it's China or the United States, human rights is a universal value."

She said she would like to see the Biden administration "lead the way for a nationwide awakening that if the Chinese government doesn't reverse its policy, there would be costs associated with this."

Biden administration officials have said that Beijing has committed crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang, but have yet to detail possible repercussions.

"These atrocities, we have made the point, shock the conscience. They can't be ignored, and they must be met with serious consequences," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday. "I think the question that we are posing to like-minded allies and partners around the world is: What collectively can we do not only to impose costs on China for what has transpired, but in order to ensure that these -- seek to ensure that these atrocities do not continue going forward?"

A new report by more than 50 global experts in human rights, war crimes and international law -- Rayhan among them -- claims that China's alleged actions in the Xinjiang region have violated every single provision in the United Nations' Genocide Convention.

The Chinese government has denied allegations of genocide in Xinjiang; Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this week that the charges are "preposterous" and accused unnamed Western politicians of "creating the so-called Xinjiang issue to undermine security and stability in Xinjiang and hold back China's development."

This story was first published on CNN.com 'Sister of Uyghur entrepreneur believed to be detained in China urges Biden to act over 'unspeakable injustice''