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House Democrats call on State Department for information on Uighur prisoner Ekpar Asat

House Democrats call on State Department for information on Uighur prisoner Ekpar Asat
© Greg Nash

A group of House Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition raised concerns Wednesday about the status of Uighur prisoner Ekpar Asat, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a secret trial following his return to China. 

Prior to his imprisonment, Asat, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, participated in a State Department program in the United States and founded a social media platform for Uighurs. 

In a letter spearheaded by Rep. Max RoseMax RoseOvernight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Austin sworn in as nation's first Black Pentagon chief We lost in November — we're proud we didn't take corporate PAC money MORE (D-N.Y.) sent to Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai on Tuesday, the lawmakers called for information on Asat, noting he had disappeared into the Chinese detention system and had not spoken to his family since 2016.

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The group noted that Asat has been portrayed in a positive light in the Chinese media, yet was accused of “inciting ethnic hatred” after taking part in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) and for providing a digital platform for Uighurs, called Bagdax. 

“Mr. Asat was selected for the [State Department] program due to his work cultivating cross-cultural ties between ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and the government in the Uyghur region," the lawmakers wrote. 

“We understand that Mr. Asat and Bagdax have been portrayed favorably in the Chinese media as a means of bridging cultural divides in China. Particularly considering this information, we are deeply concerned that Mr. Asat was reportedly detained and sentenced to 15 years in prison on suspicion of allegedly ‘inciting ethnic hatred," they wrote.

Before returning to China, Asat told his sister who lived in Cambridge, Mass., at the time he planned to return to the United States within months, but was later detained, The New York Times first reported.

The group went on to praise Asat’s work, asserting they believe his participation in the State Department program demonstrates his dedication to unifying communities in both China and the United States. The lawmakers noted that the social media platform he created is still operating in China.

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“We understand that Bagdax continues to operate despite Mr. Asat’s disappearance, indicating that the company remains committed to its mission of bringing different ethnic groups together in China,” the letter said. 

“Throughout the IVLP, Mr. Asat sought to gain knowledge of American culture and technology as a means of improving his own platform, consistent with Chinese law, policy, and regulations. His American hosts convey that he was a curious, warm, and friendly participant, frequently looking after his fellow group members and representing the best of China’s diversity," the lawmakers noted.

The group also stressed that Chinese delegates in the IVLP program have a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations. 

“The targeting of one participant undermines the program’s ability to continue this work,” they wrote. "We urge you to provide clarity regarding Mr. Asat’s status and to release him to his family as soon as possible.”

Asat’s family, along with more than 80 Harvard-educated lawyers, are also calling for the State Department to further intervene and petitioning the Chinese government for his release. 

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Updated 2:49 p.m.