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I was shaking at my core to return to Harvard this time. Since graduating from Harvard Law School in 2016, I have returned several times to speak to students about my practice as an anti-corruption lawyer. But on March 9, I returned to share a deeply personal story about my brother Ekpar Asat, a prominent Uighur tech entrepreneur who has been arbitrarily detained since returning to China from the United States in spring 2016.
Making myself vulnerable at a time when academic freedom is under constant attack concerned me. But I couldn’t think of a better venue to share my brother’s story by the side of my mentor, Law School Professor William P. Alford, who is well known for his genuine care for students and colleagues. In some ways, it was therapeutic as the faculty and students were rooting for me. It felt like my homecoming.
Harvard’s motto, Veritas, means truth. I returned to my alma mater to speak the truth, even if my voice shook.
The hero of this story is my brother, Ekpar Asat. My anchor, my mentor, the greatest man that I have ever known. It all began almost four years ago when I was a student at the Law School. Around late January 2016, my brother told me that he would be coming to the U.S. He had been accepted to the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program — whose alumni include New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, among other world leaders. Many Han Chinese have also benefited from similar State Department programs, including Xie Feng, the Foreign Ministry’s commissioner in Hong Kong.
My brother is a tech entrepreneur and philanthropist. While in college, he founded a large social media platform for Uighurs. He was aware of the risks of doing media business in China, and he has been very cautious with the content published and strictly complied with the government’s censorship policies. Chinese state media praised him as a positive force, bright star, and bridge-builder between different cultures.
I was beyond excited for him that he got into such a prestigious program. Never would I have thought this nomination would not be a blessing but a curse! Within weeks after returning from this trip, my brother was detained, and his whereabouts remain unknown. One thing became clear to me after my brother disappeared — as long as you are Uighur, none of your contributions matter. The Chinese government can make you vanish as if you are nobody and no one can seek ownership of you. It pains me that I cannot even ask my family if my brother is alive!
Many of you know Professor Michael J. Sandel’s famous course “Justice,” in which he analyzes questions of morality, such as whether sacrificing one life in order to save another five is right. I have thought about this question when, over the past few years, I chose not to speak out, fearing retribution against my other family members. Obviously, there is a difference in my case, as it was the state that unjustly took my brother away. Nevertheless, despite my Harvard Law background and my experience as an attorney, I chose them over my brother and left him hopeless.
Yet just like my brother, I have been committed to the betterment of the world. In particular, I hoped to promote the relationships between China and Turkey. In 2012, I co-organized a landmark conference that brought Chinese lawyers and academics to Istanbul to engage with my Turkish colleagues. Featured speakers included the Chinese General Consul in Istanbul and the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey. While I worked as an attorney in Istanbul, I was also committed to my own pro-bono work and desired to improve the lives of Syrian refugees. That is the beauty of being an attorney — you can change lives. However, when it came to my own brother, I felt so powerless. As an attorney who lives and breathes to find a solution, I feel so helpless in the face of injustice committed by such a powerful and authoritarian country against my own brother.
Furthermore, over the past few years, I have used other forms of advocacy, such as meeting with officials from the State Department, to fight for him. None of these efforts have yielded a positive result. I realized that speaking out is the only powerful form to raise awareness and bring change. My brother will continue and has already become one of the human faces of the Chinese government’s ongoing atrocities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
I am sharing my brother’s story, a story of courage, to send a message to my Harvard and fellow Harvardians. Many of you will be shapers and movers of our society. Your words carry weight. Therefore, I ask you: Join the fight, be the light, be the integrity, be the voice for my brother, and my people. Because you are my people too.
Rayhan Asat is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
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