POULSBO — Jacob Harlan of Poulsbo has been in custody in the Jiangsu Province of China on human trafficking charges since September, according to his family.
Harlan, a 1998 graduate of North Kitsap High School, and his 8-year-old daughter were traveling in China as part of Harlan’s business, China Horizons, a company that links teachers with Chinese schools to teach English.
According to Harlan’s family, he and his daughter were taken into custody in September on charges of human trafficking and transporting people across China’s borders without proper visa documentation.
Upon his arrest, Harlan had his phone, computer and other personal items taken from him, leaving him unable to contact his family for about two days. Eventually, his daughter was allowed to contact the family and allowed to travel with a family friend back to the United States.
Harlan was held under house arrest, where his family and international lawyers had contact with him until Dec. 31, when he was transported to a jail in the city of Zhenjiang, his family said.
Since that time, Harlan has only had contact with one member of the U.S. Consulate in China and an international lawyer. However, due to the spread of COVID-19, those visits have been limited, along with mail services and fresh food deliveries, family members said.
Harlan’s family has set up a GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/f/help-jacob-harlan to handle costs for international lawyer fees. As of Saturday, 386 people had donated a total of $50,085, surpassing the goal of $50,000.
Following his arrest, Harlan’s Idaho-based business was shut down. All of Harlan’s employees, except Alyssa Petersen, a director for China Horizons, returned home safely. Petersen also remains in custody.
Harlan was born and raised in Poulsbo and was active in the North Kitsap High School choir. According to his family, he had delivered papers for the North Kitsap Herald in his youth. He attended Brigham Young University in Idaho.
According to Harlan’s sister, Amy Knutson, it was his Mandarin professor who had encouraged him to take up a position in China teaching English. At the time Harlan was a newlywed, so for a year after they were married he and his wife lived in China. They returned to the states to start their family, but soon after their second child was born they returned to China for another year.
“He’s very familiar with China, loves the country, loves the people. It’s just unfortunate that the situation is the way that is for him right now,” Knutson said.
Knutson described her brother as being a very kind and family-oriented person and noted the fact that they haven’t had any contact with him since Dec. 31.
“I think just not having the daily contact with him is probably the harder part of all of it. Before, when he was arrested, he was in a hotel. Even though they took everything from him, they issued him a police cellphone and so we were still able to talk every single day,” Knutson said.
This was especially helpful for his children who range in age from 1 to 16 years old.
The U.S. Consulate in China has been able to speak to Harlan via phone and has been able to assure his family that all of his needs are being met.
Through donated funds, Harlan’s family has been able to hire an international lawyer to help bring him home, but due to the coronavirus outbreak, the jail housing Harlan has been shut down to visitors completely.
Publications including The Washington Post and The New York Times have inferred that the tensions between the U.S. and China have led to increased arrests of American citizens overseas.
The Chinese government has been adamant that the uneasy relationship between the U.S. and China has no bearing on these cases.
According to Knutson, many U.S. Senators have reached out to the family to ask if they would like to put Harlan on a list of names to put before President Donald Trump as part of a potential prisoner exchange with China.
“I think it’s very telling when we have senators reaching out to us, to the family, to say that we would like to put Jacob and Alyssa’s name before the president and hopefully work on a prisoner exchange. I think that speaks a lot,” Knutson said.
Jefferson County reporter Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].