Two Americans held in China accused of illegally moving people across country borders

Two American citizens have been detained in China on “bogus” charges of illegally moving people across country borders — and they could end up imprisoned there “for the next few months or years,” a U.S.-based educational organization is warning.

Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen of China Horizons were arrested in the eastern province of Jiangsu in late September, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang announced Thursday. They are suspected of organizing others to illegally cross the border, a crime the Associated Press says carries a minimum sentence of two years, with punishment as severe as life imprisonment under certain circumstances.

“Because of the changes that are taking place in China right now, [China Horizons'] 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,” the Idaho-based organization – which helps place English teachers in Chinese schools – posted on its Facebook page last Friday.

Jacob Harlan, left, and Alyssa Petersen, of the U.S.-based educational organization China Horizons, have been arrested in China. (Facebook/GoFundMe)

Jacob Harlan, left, and Alyssa Petersen, of the U.S.-based educational organization China Horizons, have been arrested in China. (Facebook/GoFundMe)

“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,” it added.

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China Horizons also announced in the post that they are shutting down after being in business for 17 years, because of “increasing political and economic problems” between the two world superpowers.

Both Harlan and Petersen were released on bail Thursday, Reuters reported, yet they are awaiting trial. It was not immediately clear which country the pair are accused of trying to move people in or out of.

“The department handling the case has informed the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai in a timely manner, arranged U.S. diplomats to conduct consular visits and protected the legitimate rights and interests of the two,” Geng said at a press briefing.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing confirmed that it’s aware of the detentions and the charges brought against the two but gave no further details.

“We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation,” an embassy spokesman told the Associated Press.

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A pair of GoFundMe sites set up for the two has raised nearly $40,000 toward their legal defense and other expenses.

Harlan’s site says he is a father of five from Utah who was taken from his hotel room on the morning of Sept. 28, along with his 8-year-old daughter, Viara.

It said Viara Harlan was allowed to make a brief call to her mother in Utah after 48 hours, but not permitted to disclose her location or say anything about what had happened. Police later allowed her to fly home to the U.S. accompanied by a family friend, according to the site.

Petersen’s page says she was held incommunicado for two weeks after being taken away by police and was located only after her family went to the State Department for assistance.

“We received information that she is doing OK. She wakes up when told, she goes to sleep when told. She spends her day in a jail cell or walking in a circle counting steps,” the site said.

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While the charge of illegally moving people across country borders generally applies to human traffickers, it has also been used in the past against those accused of conducting missionary work in China, which the officially atheist communist government strictly forbids, the Associated Press reports.

Last year, a U.S. missionary, the Rev. John Sanqiang Cao, was sentenced to seven years in prison on the same charge.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.