Ottawa should lead an international effort to free a Canadian citizen imprisoned in China on terror charges, human rights advocates said yesterday, noting that support for the man’s case has gained momentum in the United States despite losing ground at home.

Federal support for Huseyin Celil of Burlington, Ont., a member of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority, began to fade after he was handed a life sentence in April, 2007, Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said yesterday at the group’s annual general meeting in Toronto.

With the Beijing Olympics less than two months away, now is the perfect time to renew efforts to press China to release Mr. Celil, or at the very least, grant him a “fair, prompt and independent trial,” Mr. Neve said.

“Canada should certainly intensify and focus its efforts on behalf of Celil,” he said. “It’s time to put human rights, not trade, investment or oil deals or million-dollar contracts … first in our relationship with China.”

Both Amnesty International and the World Uyghur Congress are calling on Ottawa to appoint a high-level envoy to manage Mr. Celil’s case and work with other countries that have expressed interest in the plight of the Uyghurs, who have faced persecution in China similar to that of Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners.

While he doesn’t directly attribute Ottawa’s recent lack of action on the file to the scandals that have plagued former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, Mr. Neve said a credible, high-level envoy with a deep understanding of China and connections inside the country would allow the Celil case to “weather a setback like Mr. Bernier.”

Mr. Bernier left cabinet late last month after a series of missteps, including his relationship with a woman with ties to bikers and his call for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to replace the governor of Kandahar province.

Mr. Neve suggested the efforts of Rebiya Kadeer, an outspoken activist and president of the World Uyghur Congress, are what’s really paying off in the United States and elsewhere.

Mr. Neve said it was “heartening” to see resolutions tabled by Congress in support of Mr. Celil and Ms. Kadeer, whose children were charged and brutally beaten in China. Ms. Kadeer herself was imprisoned for several years for speaking out on human rights.

“We haven’t seen that level of action here in Canada,” Mr. Neve said. “… We haven’t seen Parliament speak with that loud, forceful voice that we have seen from Congress south of the border.”

Ms. Kadeer, who was in Ottawa this week urging the government to get tough on China’s abysmal human rights record, said Mr. Celil’s case is being discussed in the United States, Japan, Australia and throughout Europe.

“Huseyin Celil’s case has become one of the most important cases on the international stage,” she said through an interpreter.

“I hope the Canadian government continues its position to put human rights first and put more pressure on the Chinese government to get the release of Huseyin Celil, which is a legitimate case.”

Mr. Neve suggested a “co-ordinated international strategy” is needed to bring the efforts of all countries together on the case and that Canada should lead the way.

“We don’t want to be seen as being surpassed by another government,” he said.

Mr. Celil was sentenced to life in prison in April, 2007, about two years after he was arrested in Uzbekistan while travelling on a Canadian passport. His wife, Kamila Telendibaeva, said life has been tough ever since.

“Every day that goes by, my husband suffers in jail in China, and I suffer alone with our four children,” she said. “It’s time for the Canadian government to stop talking and start acting.”

Ms. Telendibaeva said she’s worried about her husband’s health and urged Canadian officials to demand a visit with him to ensure he has food and health care.

“Huseyin is in jail because he’s a human rights activist who has stood up for the rights of others,” she said. “Now it’s time for Canada to stand up for him.”

Written by: TOBI COHEN
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