Canada issued a formal diplomatic protest to China Thursday against the sentencing of a Canadian human rights activist to life in prison.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said Canada is gravely concerned about reports that the activist, Huseyin Celil, may have been tortured in Chinese custody.

As a result of the sentencing, he said, Canada will have review a 1999 agreement with China on consular relations.

Mr. MacKay said in the House Wednesday that he will continue with a planned trip to China at the end of the month, and he will raise the issue.

The Celil case has already strained relations between the two countries. Mr. MacKay said just Wednesday that one of the reasons he was going to China in the first place was to atempt to secure the release of Mr. Celil.

The Chinese charge d’affaires in Ottawa was given a formal statement saying Canada “remains gravely concerned about allegations that Mr. Celil has been mistreated while in Canadian custody and possibly subjected to torture.”

This would be a violation of a United Nations ban of all forms of torture.

“We call upon the government of China to investigate these claims promptly and impartially, and to ensure that Mr. Celil’s rights are adequately protected,.” Mr. MacKay said.

Mr. MacKay spoke by phone earlier with Mr. Celil’s wife, Kamila Telendibaeva, to assure her Canada “will continue to pursue justice” for her husband.

Mr. Celil who grew up in China and fled to Canada in 2001, was sentenced for the two crimes of “separating China and … organizing, leading and participating in terrorist groups, organizations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

Mr. Liu said the first carried a penalty of life in prison and the deprivation of all political rights, which include free speech and the ability to gather or protest. The second carried a sentence of 10 years.

“We hope that Canada won’t use this to interfere in China’s domestic affairs and also hope that Chinese-Canadian relations won’t be affected,” Mr. Liu said.

“Canada should be extremely clear on China’s position that the case of Celil is entirely China’s domestic matter.”

Mr. Celil’s wife, reached by the Canadian Press in her Burlington, Ont., home said Foreign Affairs officials called around 1 a.m. Thursday with news her 38-year-old husband had just been sentenced.

“I said, ‘for what?’ He spoke about humanity, about human rights,” said Kamila Telendibaeva.

“It’s not fair and it’s not justice to give a life sentence to him.”

However, she said she was not surprised because China “does whatever it wants.”

Mr. Celil, a member of Western China’s Muslim Uigur minority, escaped from prison in China in 2000, fleeing to Uzbekistan and Turkey before landing in Canada. He became a Canadian citizen in 2005.

Mr. Celil was arrested in Uzbekistan in March 27, 2006, while visiting his wife’s relatives.

Ms. Telendibaeva said that was the last time she saw or spoke to her husband. Mr. Celil was deported to China in June.

Ms. Telendibaeva spoke with relatives who were at the courthouse to hear the verdict. The mother of four children said they told her the entire process took about 15 minutes and that Mr. Celil appeared to be in good condition.

Family members were not allowed to speak with him, she said.

Ms. Teledibaeva said she hasn’t lost hope that her husband will be released. She said she wants Canada to use its strong relationship with China to urge Mr. Celil’s release.

“I will not give up. I have worked hard and I will work again to release my husband, to bring him back home,” she said, adding her husband should appeal the decision.

A Foreign Affairs spokesman said the department is reviewing the verdict, but refused to give further comment.

“This is a great blow to Mr. Celil and his family members,” a spokesperson at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing who spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity according to protocol.

“Canada remains very concerned that the Chinese government has prevented us from meeting Mr. Celil,” the spokesperson said. “We would urge the Chinese authorities to grant embassy officials access to Mr. Celil.”

Mr. Celil’s case has already been a point of contention between Canada and China.

China does not recognize his Canadian citizenship and Ottawa has been aggressively lobbying for his release — a move that has angered Chinese officials.

A senior Chinese official warned the Canadian government criticizing China’s human-rights policies could jeopardize Canada-China trade relationships.

The charges against Mr. Celil are murky. His family says he is being persecuted because he is a Muslim and a political dissident.

Chinese authorities have long maintained militants among the Uighurs — Turkic-speaking Muslims — are leading a violent Islamic separatist movement in the region and are seeking to set up an independent state of “East Turkistan.”

The separatist movement gained momentum following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and the establishment of several independent and largely Muslim countries in the neighbouring region.

Written by: Jeff Sallot
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