Human rights advocates are pressing for the release of an ethnic Uyghur-Canadian citizen held in a Chinese prison since 2005, following Beijing’s freeing of two Canadians last month after Ottawa ended the house arrest of Huawei tech executive Meng Wanzhou.
Huseyin Celil, now 52, moved to Canada in 2001 as a refugee with U.N. status, and received Canadian citizenship in 2005, the year he was detained in Uzbekistan and handed over to China. Chinese authorities sentenced him to life in prison on terrorism charges.
Active in Uyghur human rights advocacy, Huseyin’s Canadian citizenship was not recognized by China, and his wife says she has not had any contact with him in more than four years.
Rights advocates sounded the alarm about Huseyin after the Canadian government released Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., on Sept. 25.
The tech executive was detained for nearly three years under house arrest in Canada while fighting extradition to the United States to face fraud charges fraud for allegedly misleading banks into processing transactions for Huawei that violated U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Following Meng’s release, the Chinese government released two Canadian nationals — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — held in prison in China since 2018 on espionage charges widely viewed as “hostage diplomacy” in retaliation for Meng’s detention, allowing them to return home.
The resolution of the “two Michaels” case sparked a resurgence of calls among Canadian activists on social media for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to pay similar attention to Huseyin’s case.
“Huseyin Celil’s case, because he’s Canadian, should be raised at every level, both publicly and in private, at high-level meetings, at every opportunity, so that he remains on all Canadians’ minds until he’s released,” Yonah Diamond, a legal advisor to the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights in Canada, told RFA.
“The reason I say the unjust imprisonment and disappearance of Celil is a threat to all Canadians is because China captured Celil in Uzbekistan as a result of his involvement in Uyghur rights advocacy in Canada, and so his illegal abduction poses a threat to all Canadians’ fundamental rights to freedom of expression,” he said.
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said that Canadian lawmakers have continually called on the government to prioritize seeking Celil’s release.
“However, indications are that the Canadian government has not raised this case to the same degree or at the same level with Chinese authorities and has not raised it with the Biden administration,” he told The Globe and Mail in late September.
Pressure on the government
Memet Tohti, executive director of the Canada-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said Canadians have criticized their government, suggesting there is discrimination in Huseyin’s case because he is Muslim.
“People are wondering why there is no justice for Huseyin Celil,” he said.
“The Canadian government can’t explain why this is,” Tohti said. “Even a piece in the Toronto Star asked if it’s because Huseyin Celil is Muslim and a Uyghur. Writers are asking questions like this, so there’s very significant pressure on the government right now.”
Tohti and Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, who is currently visiting Canada, met with an advisor to the Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau on Sept. 28 to discuss Huseyin’s case.
The ministry representative told them that the Canadian government has raised the issue in meetings with the Chinese and would continue to do so, Tohti said.
“He said that the Canadian government will put the Huseyin Celil issue in a significant place at the same time as they continue working on the Uyghur, Tibet, and Hong Kong issues,” Tohti said.
Huseyin’s wife, Kamila Telendibaeva, told RFA that she has not been in touch with her husband or received any information about his condition since 2016 or 2017, when China began operating its network of detention camps in Xinjiang.
As many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been cycled through internment camps that the government calls vocational training centers meant to prevent religious extremism and terrorism. But Uyghurs who have been through detention describe being detained against their will and facing harsh living conditions, intense monitoring, and heavy-handed indoctrination sessions.
Telendibaeva called on the Canadian government to renew its focus on her husband’s case.
“So, now that the Canadian government has proved they can deal with China, they can bring their citizens [home] from Chinese prisons,” she said.
“Hopefully, the next step is going to be my husband. Hopefully they’re going to deal with Chinese [leader] Xi Jinping or they’re going to deal with Chinese authorities to bring my husband back.”
In February, the Canadian parliament passed a unanimous nonbinding motion declaring China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang a genocide, becoming the second country after the U.S. to make that determination.
Lawmakers also included an amendment to the motion, calling on the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing if the Chinese government continued the abusive practices.
At the time, China strongly condemned the move, saying the country had lodged stern representations with Canada.
“Canada needs to maintain the advocacy for Celil, especially now, because the government can’t just settle for accepting the two Michaels,” said Diamond of the Raoul Wallenberg Center. “We need to continue bringing up Celil’s case at every level and every opportunity.”
Reported by Adile Ablet for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.