OTTAWA — The wife of a Canadian citizen imprisoned in China for nearly 14 years says the government must push the Chinese harder to get her husband home.
“They have to do more,” said Kamila Celil. “It’s been 14 years. I think it’s enough.”
The plight of Huseyin Celil has been almost forgotten with the spotlight now on the high-profile jailings of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in the wake of the Meng Wanzhou affair.
Celil, a member of the Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority, fled China in 2001 after being briefly jailed for advocating for human rights for the group. He settled in Canada and became a Canadian citizen in 2005.
But after travelling to Uzbekistan on his Canadian passport in 2006, he was arrested, extradited to China and jailed. In all the years he has been in detention, he has never received any consular access despite requests from both Conservative and Liberal foreign ministers.
Last week, Canada’s Ambassador to China Dominic Barton said Celil was not a “Canadian citizenship holder,” while answering a question from Conservative MP Garnett Genuis at a House of Commons committee.
Outside the committee, Barton later clarified that he was unsure about his status, but said the Chinese government didn’t recognize the citizenship.
“We have tried everything we can on the consular services side and we can not get access.”
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne made clear in the House of Commons the day after Barton’s appearance that the government recognizes Celil’s status.
“We will continue to call upon the Chinese government to give Canadian officials consular access, in order to determine his well-being and offer him assistance, like we will do for every Canadian.”
Celil said she didn’t see Barton’s comments, but said there should be no doubt about her husband’s citizenship.
“He is a Canadian citizen. I have all the documents.”
But Kamila Celil said the government should move past requests for consular access and focus instead on getting her husband released on humanitarian grounds.
“They have to directly ask for his release.”
The family have four children, one of whom Celil has never seen because of his arrest.
The Chinese government has been targeting Uyghurs more aggressively in recent years. There are reports the government has interned millions of them in what it calls “re-education” camps. Even those outside of the camps have been under harsh surveillance and are pushed to abandon their culture, faith and language.
Celil said she has received no word for four years about her husband’s health. That coincides with a wider crackdown on Uyghur people.
Her husband’s family had been visiting him in prison up until that point, but since then she has had no contact and can’t get in contact with them.
“I don’t have their number, the number isn’t going through, no Skype, no Facebook, no nothing,” she said.
Genuis said he worried about the message the ambassador’s language was sending to Celil’s supporters.
“It is obviously extremely disappointing and it must be just devastating for his family and friends,” he said. “He seemed unaware of some of the basic facts about this case.”
Genuis conceded there was no easy solution to the issue, but thought a stronger response from Canadian officials would go a long way.
“I am not going to pretend that somebody has a button under their desk and all they need to do is push it,” he said. “It shouldn’t fall off the radar. We need to be persistent in advocating for the rights of a detained Canadian.”
By contrast, while the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained Spavor and Kovrig for over a year, they have at least granted the two men some access to Canadian officials usually on a monthly basis.
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said the government could absolutely be doing more.
“His wife and four children, all citizens, live here so this has to be an absolute priority for the Canadian government,” he said. “This should be a moment in time when Canada is pulling out all the stops and intensifying our efforts.”
Neve said Canada could be getting other countries to also call for Celil’s releases, much as they have done with Kovrig and Spavor.
He said he worried the case was being forgotten.
“When the relationship with Canada and China is so fraught, is strained, the risk of Mr. Celil’s case being forgotten or at least downplayed is a real one and we can’t let that happen.”
Celil was originally sentenced to life in prison and then the sentence was reduced, but Neve said the length of the sentence seemed to be fluid.
“It is not entirely clear how much more time he has to serve in prison.”
Written by: Ryan Tumilty