Last week, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor returned to Canada after more than 1,000 days in custody – but for people like Huseyin Celil, the wait has gone on for years
For dozens of families across Canada, the scenes this weekend of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor reuniting with their loved ones or being embraced by the Prime Minister must have been bittersweet.
For while the saga of the two Michaels is over, 115 Canadians remain imprisoned in China on a variety of charges, Global Affairs Canada has confirmed. At least four are facing the death penalty. One has not been heard from for more than a decade, having been denied access to consular officials and cut off from his family. For those Canadians, experts doubt Ottawa has the leverage – or the willingness – to pressure Beijing on their behalf.
“We are very pleased about the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, but we must not forget that there are still Canadians unjustly and arbitrarily detained in China,” said Garnett Genuis, a Conservative MP who has lobbied the government on this issue.
“Huseyin Celil has been arbitrarily detained in China for over a decade. We have continually called on the government to prioritize the seeking of his 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,” Mr. Genuis said.
Mr. Celil, a Uyghur imam from China’s Xinjiang region, fled the country in the mid-1990s after being jailed for using a megaphone to broadcast calls to prayer. A Chinese court subsequently sentenced him to death in absentia for organizing a political party to advocate for China’s Uyghur people, a predominantly Muslim minority. He moved to Canada in 2001 as a political refugee and obtained a Canadian passport four years later.
In 2006, while travelling in Uzbekistan on that passport, he was arrested and sent to China, where he was sentenced to life in prison. China refuses to recognize his Canadian citizenship and has barred Canadian officials from seeing him.
Mr. Celil’s treatment became a point of heated discussion between Canada and China and was raised by then-prime minister Stephen Harper with Hu Jintao, China’s president at the time. Mr. Celil’s sentence was commuted to about 20 years in 2016, according to Chinese state media, just months after Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister. At the time, Beijing and Ottawa were seeking to improve relations. But that effort came crashing down two years later when police in Vancouver arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. Shortly afterward, China arrested Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
Since then, little has been heard of Mr. Celil. His family members in Canada are not sure he is still alive; they say relatives who previously acted as sources of information about his condition have been swept up by Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs detained in “vocational training centres” – part of a campaign of repression that has been denounced as cultural genocide.
“I don’t have any communication with the family since the concentration camps opened in China,” Mr. Celil’s wife, Kamila, told The Globe and Mail this month. She has called on the government to do more to lobby for his release.
Responding to a question in Parliament from Mr. Genuis this year, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said Ottawa was “absolutely” taking Mr. Celil’s case as seriously as that of the two Michaels. “We are deeply concerned about Mr. Celil and continue to raise his case at senior levels in China. And we will continue to do so until we get consular access in order to determine his well-being and offer him assistance,” Mr. Garneau said.
The situation of dual nationals detained in China has proven difficult for many countries. Beijing does not recognize dual nationality, refusing to allow consular visits – possibly in violation of the Vienna Convention – and some foreign nationals born in China have given up their citizenship after being arrested there, often under apparent duress.
That’s what happened to Sun Qian, a Falun Gong practitioner and successful biochemistry entrepreneur who immigrated to Canada in the mid-2000s.
She was sentenced to eight years in prison last year by a Chinese court, which said she had renounced her Canadian citizenship.
She was arrested during a visit to China in 2017 and accused of organizing a cult. At a trial in September the following year, she said she had done nothing illegal and described her mistreatment while in detention.
Two months later, she wrote a note saying she was in the process of pleading guilty and no longer wanted to meet with her lawyer.
Her sentencing followed the detention of Ms. Meng in December, 2018, and supporters said it had been influenced by the collapse of relations between Ottawa and Beijing.
Fan Wei, Xu Weihong and Ye Jianhui
Canadians Fan Wei, Xu Weihong and Ye Jianhui have been sentenced to death since then – all on drug-related charges. China usually takes a hard line in such cases and has put even foreign traffickers to death, but it does not typically execute citizens of Western countries. The last high-profile case was in 2009, when it executed British national Akmal Shaikh.
Some people campaigning for their release have complained that the cases of Messrs. Ye, Xu and Fan have not received the same attention or been met with same level of outrage as the detention of white Canadians. Ottawa has called for clemency for all three men – but has not denounced the charges as “arbitrary,” as it did in other cases.
All three men were arrested for drug trafficking, but less is known about their personal circumstances as their families have not spoken publicly about the cases. A spokeswoman for Global Affairs said the majority of Canadians detained in China are facing drug-related charges.
Mr. Ye, who was handed a death sentence in April, 2019, was among 11 people punished for their role in what Chinese authorities say was a major drug-trafficking ring, members of which had been arrested in 2012.
When the verdict was announced, Chinese media drew attention to Mr. Ye’s Canadian nationality, despite the alleged ring including four Mexicans and an American, Mark Swidan. Mr. Swidan’s family has maintained he is innocent and lobbied publicly for his release.
The death sentence for Mr. Ye, like Messrs. Xu and Fan, was announced after Ms. Meng’s arrest, despite him being detained and tried years earlier. That same week in 2019, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said China had begun blocking imports of Canadian pork.
Robert Schellenberg’s case has received more coverage. He was arrested in 2014, also on drug-related charges, and initially sentenced to a 15-year prison term. But that was upgraded to the death penalty just weeks after Ms. Meng’s arrest – a decision that violates legal norms in almost all jurisdictions, even China.
At the time, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole accused China of “planning to take the life of a Canadian for political reasons.” Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, has said that seeking clemency for Mr. Schellenberg is a major priority.
Zhang Dongshuo, Mr. Schellenberg’s Chinese lawyer, said he was able to meet with his client Sunday, the first time he has seen him since a court upheld his death sentence in August. “During my meeting with him, I told him the news that the two Michaels had returned to Canada, and he looked rather surprised,” he told The Globe.
Mr. Zhang said the release of the other Canadians could be “good news” for his client but added that “the progression and nature of their cases are different.” Mr. Schellenberg’s case is currently with China’s Supreme Court, which must approve a death penalty before it is carried out. “I will still insist on defending him as I did before, especially insisting that a death sentence should not be made, and I will insist on that very hard,” Mr. Zhang said.
In March, 2016, Chinese authorities arrested John Chang and his wife, Allison Lu, as they checked out of a Shanghai hotel during a business trip. The couple, who were born in Taiwan, were travelling on Canadian passports.
Mr. Chang has been incarcerated with no direct access to his family. Ms. Lu was also jailed but released in January, 2017.
The couple, who own two wineries in British Columbia and one in Ontario, were accused of underreporting the value of their wine shipments to China and consequently not paying all the duties. Their Lulu Island Winery in Richmond, B.C., is also named in the charges and denies both allegations.
Beijing will not budge
Just what leverage Ottawa can bring to bear in such cases is unclear. The release of the two Michaels came about largely as a result of U.S. action, after a deal reached with Huawei in New York allowed Ms. Meng to return home. Critics of Mr. Trudeau have accused his government of relying on Washington to negotiate for Canadian hostages.
Gar Pardy, a former director-general of consular affairs for Canada, said he expected Ottawa to continue to lobby on behalf of Mr. Schellenberg and Mr. Celil, given the public attention their cases have garnered.
“As for the others still enjoying Beijing’s hospitality, they will now fade back into the shadows as part of the normal background on relations with China,” he said.
Times Wang, a lawyer whose own father, democracy activist Wang Bingzhang, is imprisoned in China, said it is not clear “Canadian politicians care enough to overcome the economic downsides of taking a hard line.”
And Beijing has “calculated that, because of that relative indifference, and because of Canadian economic dependence on [China], it has more leverage than Canada does,” he said.
While Canada’s comparative weakness in negotiations with China has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, most countries do not fare any better.
Richard O’Halloran, an Irish businessman, has been stuck in China since February, 2019. He has not been charged with a crime but has been prevented from leaving the country while a commercial dispute remains unresolved. Lobbying by Dublin has not had any success.
Even raising such issues directly with President Xi Jinping has not embarrassed China into action. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven said he did just that during an official visit in 2017 with regard to Gui Minhai, who was kidnapped in Thailand in 2015 and taken to China. Mr. Gui was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year for “illegally providing intelligence overseas,” and Chinese officials claimed he had given up his Swedish passport.
In February, Ottawa launched the “Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations,” which was endorsed by the European Union and 58 countries, including the United States. The coalition has called for an end to the “illegal and immoral practice” of detaining foreigners for “diplomatic gain.”
Washington has perhaps the greatest leverage over China, given their economic relationship and various diplomatic disputes, but the U.S. too has struggled in this area, despite former president Donald Trump’s tough line on Beijing and public vow to bring home American hostages overseas.
Harrison Li, whose father, Kai Li, is serving a 10-year sentence for “stealing state secrets” – charges Mr. Li said are “nearly identical to those levied against the Canadians” – has called on the U.S. to do more to protect Americans detained in China.
The release of the two Michaels, he said, “shows unequivocally how the Chinese government uses vague ‘national security’ charges against foreigners for political leverage.
“It’s unacceptable that the United States has allowed the Chinese government to arbitrarily detain one of its citizens for political gain for more than half a decade.”
Kai Li’s case has been taken up by some U.S. lawmakers, and his son said the State Department has lobbied Beijing behind the scenes, but the detained American has not been mentioned publicly by either Secretary of State Antony Blinken or President Joe Biden, both of whom called for the release of the two Michaels.
With reports from Alexandra Li, Nathan VanderKlippe, Robert Fife and The Canadian Press