Five years ago, in April 2016 more precisely, Ekpar Asat disappeared overnight. The young Uyghur, a Turkish-speaking and Muslim minority in China, was returning to Xinjiang province after a stay in the United States during which he had participated in a prestigious program intended to train future leaders of the planet. For months, his relatives did not hear from him, until they learned of his sentence to 15 years of imprisonment and his internment in a Chinese camp. Since then, her older sister, a Harvard graduate, has been fighting to cry out her rage and get her brother released. Like him, a million Uyghurs are said to be locked up today because of their ethnicity. Rayhan Asat, lawyer specializing in human rights, is the Guest of Saturday of LaLibre.be.
Your brother Ekpar had come to the United States, like 5,000 foreign citizens each year, to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program, a prestigious State Department program set up to develop future leaders. He disappeared three weeks later. What happened ? Does China see him as an enemy because he left for the United States?
That’s what I think, because a month before this trip to the United States, he was in the good graces of China. He had even been invited to a gala dinner organized by the Chinese state. He left for the USA and, upon his return, he disappeared. Suddenly. No evidence has been established against him, so far, to justify such detention. Now I believe he is seen by the regime as a leader of sorts.
Your brother had founded Bagdax, a social network for Uyghurs, is that right?
Yes, it was kind of a mix between a social network and a news site. You could share photos, videos, music, add friends, talk to people. There was also a section with articles, interviews translated from Mandarin to Uyghur. My brother studied computer science and he loves literature, culture, languages. This site was a mix of everything he loves.
How did you know he was locked up in a camp?
At the start, we didn’t know anything. He was also supposed to return a few months later to the USA to participate in my graduation ceremony with my parents. They canceled, but didn’t tell me anything. I obviously wondered what was going on. My older brother was unreachable. Emails, calls, messages, nothing … At first, we thought he was going to be released. It sometimes happens to citizens returning from abroad to be questioned. He’s a model citizen, so he was supposed to come out. More than six months have passed and we still did not know where he was. Little by little, we started to think about the camps. Uyghur friends who share information about the situation in the region told me about their existence. Some Chinese friends also stopped talking to me, there was a lot of censorship in China. We had confirmation in December 2019 thanks to American senators who called the Chinese authorities to account. At that moment, I told myself that I couldn’t stay silent. I had to talk. Until now, I had been silent because I was afraid the Chinese government would attack other members of my family. Talking is the only way to hope for things to happen.
Today marks the 5th anniversary since the Chinese Communist Party’s unjust detention of Ekpar Asat.
May we all spare a few minutes to pray for Ekpar, his family and millions of other Uyghurs who are still suffering in prisons and in concentration camps.#FreeEkpar #FreeUyghurs pic.twitter.com/mNrUA9CM9V
— Joey Siu 邵岚 (@jooeysiiu) April 7, 2021
Your parents were able to talk to your for three minutes. What did he say and in what condition was he?
It is as if he had become the ghost of the person he was before. My parents didn’t even recognize him. He lost a lot of weight, black spots mark his face. I think it is due to the lack of exposure to the sun.
Why did the authorities let him talk to them?
Several countries have recognized the genocide: Canada, the USA, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands. I think it’s to tell the whole world: we are not committing genocide, we are not killing people … The government wants to kill our people slowly. I don’t know if my brother will get out of there alive. Today, in these camps, these men are malnourished, tortured (waterboarding, electrocution …), they are deprived of sleep, they must self-criticize, self-treat extremists. These innocent people have lost their dignity. And then, locking up men, many of them aged between 20 and 45, is also a good way for the Chinese government to control births. If you have all these men, who are the women going to marry and have babies with? Women have also been sterilized. The authorities also separated children from their parents to be put in public orphanages. You can’t force people to be someone else. I think when these kids get older, knowing what happened, they’re going to be traumatized. There, they are too young, so they don’t understand, but one day they will know the truth and understand why they were separated, and will be traumatized. I do not know what this will generate for them …
How was the situation for Uyghurs when you were young?
I grew up in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Growing up in a big city made the situation what I would call “okay”. There was still discrimination, the city was sort of segregated between Uyghur neighborhoods and Chinatown. But, for my part, we lived in a building in which we were the only Uyghur children, in the middle of “Han” families (the majority ethnic group in China, Editor’s note). I learned to respect them. I didn’t look at them as Hans but just as neighbors. And then I went to a bilingual school.
When did the situation get out of hand?
When the Chinese government began to conduct an immigration policy by encouraging the Han to come and settle in the region so that we become a minority. By offering them better wages, for example. This created unemployment and led to more discrimination. Some jobs were only reserved for Hans. The situation really worsened following the riots in Ürümqi in July 2009 (interethnic violence had broken out in the capital, according to Beijing, 197 people were dead and 2,000 injured, Editor’s note). In 2014, it was very complicated. The government began to lead the Strike Hard Campaign (China had doubled the budget to “fight terrorism”, monitor and oppress the Uyghurs, Editor’s note).
Have you heard from your parents?
They are not doing well. My father found out earlier this year that he had lung cancer. I am sure that he fell ill from the years of suffering inflicted by the Chinese government. I am afraid for them, I am in the United States, my brother is in the camps, they are alone now. I try to call them regularly but I’m sure all of our conversations are being monitored. The Chinese state is ready to go so far as to send Hans to Uyghur homes to live with them and spy on them.
How do you cope, alone, in the USA?
I am fortunate to be able to count on a wonderful network of supporters in Xinjiang and friends, too, in the USA. I love America, but a part of my heart is still with me, my parents and my brother. I unfortunately cannot return. If I come back, I too will be sent to these camps. I cannot fully enjoy life here. As soon as I take a vacation, I don’t feel guilty. This is called “survivor syndrome”. I also know my brother wants me to be happy. So I try to live as best I can. I go to the gym, I dance …
What can Belgium do to help you?
Several Belgian Prime Ministers like Yves Leterme and French politicians (Nicolas Sarkozy, Lionel Jospin, Alain Juppé …) participated in the program in which my brother took part. I ask them to consider his case and to plead with China to demand his release and that of the other Uyghurs. We are talking about a million people locked up in these camps, which is equivalent to about 10% of our population.
This interview was conducted on the sidelines of the Geneva Human Rights Summit which took place on June 7 and 8.