The United States has quietly become one of the most aggressive advocates for Huseyin Celil after Washington politicians risked the ire of Beijing and made him the subject of two motions calling for his release.

The backing of U.S. legislators for the case of Mr. Celil, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in China, is in large part due to the efforts of Rebiya Kadeer.

Ms. Kadeer is considered the most important leader of the Uyghur people – the Muslim minority group to which Mr. Celil belongs. She met with Canadian officials this week, and is in Toronto today kicking off Amnesty International’s annual general meeting.

She also has first-hand experience of Mr. Celil’s predicament, having spent time in a Chinese prison accused of “leaking state secrets.” In 2005, she was released early, a move believed to have been prompted by pressure from the United States. Other members of her family have not been so fortunate.

Even though Ottawa has so far failed to persuade Beijing even to accept Mr. Celil’s Canadian citizenship the level of access Ms. Kadeer is granted shows the government isn’t overtly or covertly opposed to bringing the Canadian home.

But Ms. Kadeer’s biggest impact on Mr. Celil may well come in Washington, where U.S. officials now have not only benevolent, but possibly political reasons to push for his release.

In late May, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown sponsored a resolution “expressing the sense of the Senate that the Government of the People’s Republic of China should immediately release from custody the children of Rebiya Kadeer and Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil and should refrain from further engaging in acts of cultural, linguistic, and religious suppression directed against the Uyghur people.”

The resolution wasn’t the first time Washington has expressed a formal opinion on the Celil case.

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a similar motion, in part calling on China to “immediately release Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil and allow him to rejoin his family in Canada.”

A month later, the United Kingdom passed what is called an early day motion calling for Mr. Celil’s immediate release.

There also may be a political upside for Washington if Mr. Celil is released.

Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian government came close to accepting as refugees a group of Uyghur prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, only to back off in part because of fears that such a move would worsen the chances of getting Mr. Celil out of China.

The United States has desperately searched for a place to send the detained Uyghurs, who have been deemed not a security threat.

Mr. Celil’s return would give Canada one less reason not to accept the detainees.

But any move to have him released faces serious hurdles. Beijing has made it clear it considers the case closed, and rather than risk other aspects of the China-Canada relationship by pushing harder, Ottawa appears to have chosen to tone down efforts.

The Uyghur minority group has for years found a sympathetic ear in Washington.

Ms. Kadeer, whose husband was in the United States, was released in 2005 just before a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In exchange for her release, it is believed that the U.S. softened its public criticism of China, especially at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Ms. Kadeer, a millionaire businesswoman in China before running afoul of authorities, has used her considerable determination and influence as head of the World Uyghur Congress to fight for her ethnic group.

She has found several allies in Washington, where many politicians blame China for the loss of millions of jobs.

This week, she is in Canada, meeting with top government officials and hoping to keep Mr. Celil’s case alive.

She will also be the keynote speaker at Amnesty International’s annual general meeting in Toronto, part of what AI secretary-general Alex Neve calls a concerted effort to put the spotlight on China’s human-rights record ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

“It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent, courageous and persuasive voice to propel us on in those efforts than Rebiya Kadeer,” he said.

Mr. Celil was travelling on a Canadian passport when he was arrested in Uzbekistan two years ago and eventually handed over to Chinese officials. Beijing accused him of terrorism and sentenced him to life in prison in April of 2007.

He and his supporters have always denied the charges against him.

Written by: OMARL EL AKKAD
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