Published Tuesday, September 28, 2021
OTTAWA — It wasn’t until Tuesday morning, when Kamila Telendibaeva saw the footage and pictures of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor landing in Canada, that she started to picture her own reunion with her husband who has been in a Chinese prison for 15 years.
As she watched the joyful scene, Telendibaeva said she was happy to see Spavor and Kovrig freed after a years-long ordeal, saying it was great for the two men and the country.
But thinking about a reunion with a husband she hasn’t seen in years, and a father who has never met his youngest son, now a teenager, Telendibaeva raised her voice and raced over her words.
“Honestly, my blood is boiling,” she said, adding that she felt the Liberals are ignoring Huseyin Celil’s case, and wants to see a harder push to secure his release.
Telendibaeva believes winning his freedom is possible after seeing how Canadian officials worked with international counterparts, including the United States, to pressure the Chinese government to release Kovrig and Spavor.
“They should sit at the table with (Chinese President) Xi Jinping or any Chinese authority, or a special envoy to bring him back,” Telendibaeva said in an interview.
“I’m not saying what kind of deal they’re going to do for my husband’s case, but they have to bring Huseyin back now.”
Celil has been detained in China since 2006, after he was arrested in Uzbekistan and sent to China after his long-standing advocacy for the human rights of his Muslim ethnic Uyghur minority.
Telendibaeva said the family’s overtures to Chinese officials to see Celil in-person have been unsuccessful. Their period visits to him in prison were cut off about five years ago when Beijing first cracked down on Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province, rounding them up into prison camps, citing the need to fight terrorism.
Telendibaeva added she hasn’t heard much recently from Canadian officials about the state of her husband’s case.
Celil’s supporters had hoped he would be part of a deal to free Kovrig and Spavor and ahead of election day called for the winning party to appoint a special envoy to win his freedom.
Speaking Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked the public servants, diplomats and officials who “worked unbelievably hard” to secure the release of the two Michaels, and gave a nod to other countries who lined up to pressure the Chinese government.
Among those nations was the United States. Days before their release, President Joe Biden pressed Xi in a phone call to release Spavor and Kovrig.
Asked why the government hasn’t been successful at securing Celil’s release, Trudeau said Spavor and Kovrig were detained for political reasons, which galvanized public opinion in Canada and around the world.
“We were able to demonstrate that we are a country of the rule of law, and we never flinched on applying the fundamental rules of our justice system,” Trudeau said.
“We will continue to advocate for people who are wrongly imprisoned around the world as we have for many years as we will continue to.”
Unlike Spavor and Kovrig, Canadian consular officials haven’t been able to meet with Celil because China doesn’t recognize his dual Canadian citizenship, obtained in 2005.
Jeremy Paltiel, an expert on Canada-China relations from Carleton University in Ottawa, said Celil’s case would be tougher to resolve because China isn’t detaining him as a Canadian.
Some Uyghur activists have been paroled from Chinese prisons, but subject to strict conditions, Paltiel said. The same could happen to Celil, he said, but it is unlikely he would be free to speak or even come home to Canada.
“I’m not optimistic on that score, and in fact, we don’t even know if he’s alive,” Paltiel said. “That’s the sad tragedy.”