Canadian Dissident in Chinese Jail Strains $35-billion Relationship

On a warm Friday last March, after a hearty breakfast of fish cakes and salad, Huseyin Celil climbed into a car for a ride across the pockmarked streets of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Then, in the midst of a family visit with his wife's relatives, the 38-year-old from Burlington, Ont., was off to a nearby passport office to extend the family's tourist visas - an errand that shouldn't have taken more than an hour. So he left with few parting words, waving to his wife Kamila Telendibaeva and kissing his children before setting off down the road.

That last glimpse of her husband remains etched in Telendibaeva's mind. "He was wearing a dark suit, with a blue shirt," she recalls from her home back in Burlington. "Nothing special, just a suit like any other man in the city. But I've dreamed of him many times. And when I do, I see him in those clothes."

The rest of the day she'd prefer to forget. An hour passed without word from Celil, followed by another and another. Finally, around 10:30 p.m., her brother and father, who had accompanied Celil to the passport office, returned to her parents' house with shattering news: Celil had been taken away by Uzbek authorities who claimed to be apprehending a "fugitive" on behalf of the Chinese government. An ethnic Uyghur from the Xinjiang region in northwest China, Celil had spent much of his young life campaigning for the rights of his people in their Chinese-controlled homeland. He had fled the region in 1994, eventually coming to Canada as a refugee and obtaining citizenship here in 2005. But Beijing had been pursuing Uyghur activists abroad just as zealously as at home. If Celil believed his Canadian passport would protect him, he was tragically mistaken.

The Uzbeks, it turns out, have an agreement with China and other neighbouring countries to arrest each other's fugitives, and neither they nor the Chinese seemed impressed by Celil's Canadian papers. Six weeks after his arrest, he was deported to China, where he is now imprisoned on accusations of terrorism. The charges are preposterous, says Telendibaeva: "China makes up anything and everything to use against my husband." But she's in agony just the same. "We don't know about his health," says the 29-year-old. "We don't know whether he's alive or not because nobody's been allowed to see him. It's horrible."

Celil is not the first Canadian to encounter trouble while travelling abroad. But the extraordinary circumstances of his imprisonment have thrust the imam and part-time student into the national spotlight, making him the improbable centrepiece of Prime Minister Stephen HARPER's trip last week to an APEC summit in Vietnam and the cause of a diplomatic incident. Harper's insistence on raising Celil during a planned discussion with Chinese President Hu Jintao led the Chinese to cancel the meeting - then relent at the last minute and hear out Harper's lecture. So ended Canada's policy of obliging their Chinese counterparts by addressing China's shabby human rights record only behind closed doors - a practice established in the mid-1990s despite the Asian giant's well-documented mistreatment of dissidents and minorities. The idea was that polite engagement on trade matters would inevitably lead to political reform. Once Chinese citizens got a taste of economic freedom, proponents argued, they'd soon demand political leverage to go with it.

To human rights groups, and to an increasingly vocal cadre of Conservative MPs, the Celil case has exposed the gaping flaws in that theory. The promise of future trade isn't worth much if you can't trust your partner to respect the basics of INTERNATIONAL LAW, they point out. And by last week's summit, Harper was using Celil's plight to drive their point home. "At present, we run a massive trade deficit with China," he told reporters after his meeting with Hu. "The fact of the matter is that neglecting human rights hasn't opened a lot of doors either, so obviously we don't think you get anywhere by shortchanging your values."

How flagrant has China's behaviour been? As of this writing, Beijing had refused numerous requests from Canadian officials for a consular visit as guaranteed under the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations. Nor were they willing discuss the case at the political level, at least, not until last week's fraught meeting between Harper and Hu. In fact, Beijing didn't even bother to notify it had taken a Canadian citizen because it refused to recognize his citizenship, says Chris MacLeod, Celil's lawyer in Hamilton, Ont. This too is a violation of international treaties China has signed.

As a result, Celil's whereabouts remain something of a mystery. The only news the family receives comes from his elder sister, Heyrigul, who still lives in Xinjiang and who fears the Chinese authorities are listening in on her communications. "She has to go out and make her calls from a street phone," says Telendibaeva, adding that the scant information Heyrigul does provide is not encouraging. Shortly after Celil was arrested, family members were told he had been accused of the assassination of a Chinese official in Kyrgyzstan in March 2000, charges for which he would likely face the death sentence. Then, in September, the family received word he had received a 15-year prison sentence in China, and was being held in Kashgar, a large city near the Kyrgyz border. This too came into doubt, though, after Heyrigul heard rumours from local police officers that her brother was in a police facility more than 1,000 km east of Kashgar, in the city of Urumqi. The prolonged guessing game has alarmed MacLeod. "It leads me to wonder whether there's something they don't want us to see," he says. "We're very concerned that he's come to some sort of harm."

In the meantime, a variety of commentators have cast doubt on the case against Celil, based on his own track record and the relatively peaceful history of the Uyghurs in China. A population of about 8.5 million moderate Muslims who speak a distinctive Turkic language, the Uyghur community is home to an active but largely non-violent movement to restore the independence of their homeland. The region they call Eastern Turkestan briefly enjoyed autonomy after 1933, before the Chinese occupied it in 1949 and officially absorbed it six years later. In recent years, says Mohamed Tohti, president of the Uyghur Canadian Association, the Chinese have treated the Uyghur movement as a threat to their control over a territory rich in oil and minerals. "They've banned all the things that define us," he says. "Our religion, our language, our right to associate. All we're asking for is the right to self-determination, to decide our own political future. Without independence, we won't be able to preserve the culture."

Celil's part in all this has been relatively benign, adds Tohti, the prisoner's long-time friend. He fled China in the early 1990s after being charged with trying to start a political party, but was never implicated in violence or extremist activity. Then, during a stay in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 1998, he was investigated for distributing Islamic-themed cassette tapes to truck drivers entering China. The tapes, however, were deemed by Kyrgyz authorities to be harmless material teaching the most basic tenets of the religion, and Celil was quickly cleared.

As for the stunning accusation of political murder, the Chinese have not named the assassinated official or disclosed any of the evidence of his death. Still, the Celil family has offered documentary proof he was in Istanbul at the alleged time of the killing - including pictures of a meeting he had that day with Turkish government officials. "What they're claiming he did is basically impossible," says MacLeod. "He would have to be in two countries at once, or two countries inside of an hour." To Tohti, the idea of Celil carrying out an assassination is absurd. "Above all, Huseyin Celil is a family man," he says. "He has worked to promote dialogue between religious faiths, not extremism. The things he is accused of are not in his nature."

The more immediate question is how long Celil can endure prison conditions said to range from bleak to outright brutal. Rebiyah Kadeer, a Uyghur activist who once served in China's national parliament, spent eight years in an Urumqi jail for giving newspaper clippings to foreigners (the stories were deemed "state secrets"). Police interrogated her for a week when she first arrived, says the 60-year-old grandmother, who was later exiled and now lives near Washington. "They kept me awake for the first three days before I finally collapsed. They sent in shifts of people who demanded I confess, telling me I had to name other people." Speaking through a translator, Kadeer recalls her jailers beating two young Uyghur men bloody while she looked on; they said they'd continue the assault until she co-operated. They also forced her to sign confessions she was unable to understand, she says, before leaving her to a life in a solitary cell with dirty prison clothes. "I wasn't allowed to look at another prisoner. If I smiled at someone, they would take away my meals."

Kadeer was freed last year amid heavy diplomatic pressure from Washington, on the eve of an official visit to China by Condoleezza Rice. Now an advocate for Uyghurs abroad, she's urging Ottawa to intervene decisively on Celil's behalf, citing her own case as proof of the value of political intervention. The gravity of the charges against Celil - and the length of his rumoured sentence - suggest he may face even harsher treatment than she did, Kadeer warns.

This growing sense of urgency may explain why Harper decided to step into the fray. Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister quietly met with Telendibaeva and MacLeod at a downtown Toronto hotel, hearing out their case and inquiring after Telendibaeva's welfare. With four children, including a disabled seven-year-old son, she subsists on social assistance and desperately needs her husband's help. The couple's youngest child, a boy named Zubeyir, was born last August and has yet to see his father.

The Prime Minister hasn't said whether the family's woes justify offending a global power, or risking a $35-billion trade relationship - at least not publicly. But if nothing else, his intervention suggests a time-honoured notion is regaining its place in Canadian foreign policy: that some provocations can't be ignored, and some values should never be measured in dollars and cents.

Maclean's December 4, 2006