Students at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School want family members of a Burlington activist imprisoned in China to know they are not alone.

To that end, students Tuesday signed 1,000 petition letters for delivery to the Chinese Consulate in Toronto to appeal for Huseyin Celil’s release, and 250 postcards to be sent to Ottawa to remind the Canadian government of his plight.

Celil, a Canadian citizen and father of four, celebrated his 41st birthday Tuesday in solitary confinement where he is serving a life sentence for his advocacy work on behalf of the Muslim minority Uighur people in China.

St. Thomas More religion teacher Laura MacDonald organized Write for Rights, an enthusiastic group of students, to formulate the petition letter and distribute them around the school for signing, as well as collecting and counting them for delivery to the consulate in April.

The petition signing also coincided with the fifth anniversary of Celil’s imprisonment.

“It is important to (Celil’s) wife Kamila Telendibaeva that she knows she is not alone,” MacDonald said as students worked the lunchtime crowd in St. Thomas More’s cafeteria to gather even more signatures.

Telendibaeva said she was “really happy” for the action by the students.

Celil, a native Uighur who worked on human rights for his people in China in the 1990s, was arrested in Uzbekistan in 2006 and deported to China to face terrorism charges. He came to Canada in 2001 as a refugee from Turkey and became a Canadian citizen in 2005. China does not recognize his Canadian citizenship. He is in the Bajiahu prison in Urumqi, where the unrest is centred.

The Canadian government was very vocal about his plight with the Chinese, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper even raising it personally with Chinese President Hu Jintao. In 2009, Ottawa turned to U.S. activist John Kamm, who has a track record of helping free dissidents in China, to try and obtain Celil’s release but the effort has not been fruitful.

Telendibaeva said her husband’s mother and sister get to visit him every three months for 30 minutes, but Canadian consul officials still have not been allowed in to see him because China still does not recognize his Canadian citizenship. She said her husband always ask about his family back in Canada, but continues to find the whole ordeal trying and has headache and stomach problems.

She is, however, planning to visit him this year after her father arrives for a visit to look after her four boys, age 4 to 11. She doesn’t believe she could take the boys on a visit because of their age, but they keep asking about it.

“They really want to visit him,” Telendibaeva added. “They know he is in prison. They are asking ‘When can we visit him. Are we able to see him on the Internet? Can he send mail for us?”

The students’ petition letter, modeled on Amnesty International guidelines, calls on the Chinese government to allow Canadian consular officials to visit Celil, to free him from solitary confinement, provide proper nutrition and medical care and to release him to return to his family. Supporters say Celil is being held on trumped up terrorism charges.

Grade 12 student Taras Hemon, a Write for Rights member, said the campaign is important because human rights, free speech and freedom of religion are crucial to the school’s values.

“People are eager to sign once you tell them (Celil’s) story,” said Kyle St. Aubin, also in Grade 12.

“It reinforces your faith in humanity.”

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