Let's Not Forget Huseyin Celil

By Charles Burton

The arbitrary arrests of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig without charge in December of last year have appalled Canadians and led to widespread demand that the Government of Canada exert all pressure possible to achieve their release from Chinese custody. That they are being held in a Chinese “black jail” at an undisclosed location and subject to brutal interrogation (reportedly including mistreatment tantamount to to torture) is deeply troubling. That the reason for the detainment of Spavor and Kovrig is simply to pressure the Government of Canada to release a Chinese national currently under house arrest in Vancouver pending an extradition order is an outrage against Canada. It is a gross violation of the universal principles of human rights and UN-defined norms of international behaviour that China is pledged to uphold as part and parcel of the rules-based international order.

But as Canadians are rightly demanding that Canada makes the release of Kovrig and Spavor the number one priority for our engagement with the Chinese regime, another case involving an even more egregious violation of international law by China against Canada languishes largely forgotten.

Huseyin Celil of Burlington, Ontario is an Uyghur imam born in China who dared speak out about the democratic and religious rights for the Muslim minority group. Celil fled China in the mid-1990s after being imprisoned for using a megaphone to broadcast calls to prayer. He eventually made his way to Canada as a U.N. Convention refugee in 2001. Mr. Celil became a Canadian citizen in 2005. In 2006 he travelled to Uzbekistan on his Canadian passport to visit his wife’s family there. He was arrested in Uzbekistan at the request of the Government of China and transported to China without any due process of law. Huseyin Celil has been imprisoned in China ever since.

China maintains that Celil is a separatist and a terrorist, without citing any evidence. Amnesty International Canada has taken up his case for all the years since. Amnesty Secretary-General Alex Neve maintains that Huseyin Celil should never have been imprisoned because “there has never been any substantiation of the allegations against him – that he is some sort of terrorist mastermind. He did not have a fair trial.”

What is particularly disturbing about the Celil matter is that the Chinese government has consistently refused to acknowledge Mr. Celil’s Canadian citizenship. Canada has therefore had no access to Huseyin Celil over all of the years since his forced return to China. We therefore have no information on his mental and physical condition after so many years of harsh incarceration.

Mr. Celil’s spouse, Kamila Telendibaeva was informed by the Chinese Government two years ago that Celil’s life sentence has been reduced to 20 more years in prison because he had made a confession and undergone re-education training. So Celil will serve 32 years altogether, meaning that if he is indeed released in 2037, he will have entered prison at age 36 and released at age 68. In the meantime his four boys in Burlington have grown up without a father for the past 13 years. The youngest was born after his father was taken away. Kamila suffers Huseyin’s absence terribly. As a single parent, her challenge is all the greater as their eldest child is severely disabled.

Currently a million Uyghurs and other ethnic believers in Islam are being held in Chinese internment camps designed to force them to renounce their religious beliefs. China employs a “Pair Up and Become Family” program to place Han Chinese “relatives” in the homes of Uyghur families in order to spy on them and report on those who continue to profess their religious beliefs in face of the Chinese regime’s coercive measures to effectively ban most religious practices. Canada accused China at the UN last November of violating  Uyghurs’ human rights noting “credible reports of the mass detention, repression and surveillance of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.” 

But to what extent is the Government of Canada prepared to act in response to the increasing horrific suppression of Islam by the Chinese authorities?

Charles Burton is senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad, associate professor of political science at Brock University and former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing

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