The families of two China Horizons employees are pleading for the release of their loved ones after they were detained by the Chinese government at the end of September.
Jacob Harlan is the owner and founder of China Horizons, a company that often gives college students the opportunity to visit China and teach English as a second language to native Chinese speakers. Alyssa Petersen is the company’s director and attends Brigham Young University-Idaho. The company has been in business in Rexburg since 2005.
Families and friends of both individuals say that around Sept. 27 or 28, both Harlan and Petersen were detained and accused of “illegally moving people across borders,” according to GoFundMe accounts set up for both individuals.
The families say the charges are both “bogus” and “baffling” and are trying to raise money to get legal help in China.
In a phone interview with EastIdahoNews.com, Petersen’s father, Clark Petersen, said that after about a week of not hearing from their daughter, the family contacted the U.S. State Department, which contacted the American Consulate in Shanghai. U.S. officials told the family that Alyssa Peterson was being held in a Zhenjiang jail.
Zhenjiang is a Chinese city about 150 miles from Shanghai.
“What is weird to us is we haven’t heard a word from her,” Clark Petersen told EastIdahoNews.com. “As far as we know, she has been detained unlawfully.”
The family learned Petersen has been charged with helping people move illegally across borders. Petersen said to verify if the Chinese are treating his daughter OK, consulate officers visited her last week in jail for about 40 minutes. Chinese officials taped and monitored the conversation, and “they weren’t able to discuss the case at all.” Visits by U.S. Embassy officials can only happen once every month, Petersen said.
Petersen’s family says they feel lucky to have found her but know conditions in her jail cell “are not fun.”
“There was a lot of fear at first. We are Latter-day Saints, (so) we’ve fasted and prayed for her, and we’ve felt peace knowing that she is going to be OK,” Clark Petersen said.
Harlen’s situation differs slightly from Petersen’s. According to a GoFundMe set up by a family friend, Chinese police took Harlen and his 8-year-old daughter from their hotel in Weifang, China. During the arrest, police reportedly took his phone and computer, cutting off communication with his wife in Utah.
EastIdahoNews.com reached out to Harlan’s family for comment, but they declined to be interviewed.
The GoFundMe reports that after 48 hours, police allowed Harlen’s daughter to call home with the condition she would not disclose their location or release details about the arrest. The daughter ultimately traveled back to the United States once Chinese officials gave their approval. Harlan remains held under police surveillance in a hotel in Yangzhong, near Zhenjiang, according to the GoFundMe.
“He has been formally charged by the Chinese government with human trafficking,” the GoFundMe reads. “This is a baffling charge, but the investigation alone could take months, even years — and only then will a judge be able to look at the charges and the evidence.”
In January, the State Department issued a travel advisory for those visiting China. The department said China “asserted broad authority” to stop U.S. citizens from leaving the country by using exit bans. The exit bans sometimes keep U.S. citizens in China for years.
In its advisory, the State Department reports that in most situations, those leaving the country discover the exit ban only when they attempt to leave. “U.S. citizens under exit bans have been harassed and threatened,” the advisory reads. “U.S. citizens may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime.”
It’s not clear if that is what has happened in this case. EastIdahoNews.com has reached out to the State Department for comment but has not yet received a response.
EastIdahoNews.com also contacted Idaho Sen. Jim Risch’s office about the case. Risch serves as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. His press secretary, Marty Boughton, said they are working with the State Department to gather information about the incidents.
Both families are concerned about the cost of legal counsel in China, or about possible fines to get them out of the country. The purpose of the GoFundMe accounts is to pay for a legal defense. As of Thursday morning, Harlan had raised nearly $27,000 and Petersen had raised more than $12,000.
Due to the situation, China Horizons announced Friday that it would be closing its doors at the end of October. It issued the following statement on Facebook:
“Over the past 17 years we have had the great opportunity to help you experience China in a personal and unique way. We are grateful for the memories and relationships that have been built over the years. Unfortunately, because of increasing political and economic problems between the U.S. and China, we are no longer able to send teachers to China safely. As a result, our company will be closing our doors at the end of October. Because of the changes that are taking place in China right now, the owner, Jacob Harlan, and the director, Alyssa Petersen, have been detained in China for 13 days now and may be so for the next few months or years. They are being charged for bogus crimes, and their families are working on getting them international lawyers to help them get back home to the states. If you would like more information and would like to help, there are two separate GoFundMe accounts that have been created for them both.”
The company also says they are working to bring all of their teachers home.