Adalet Rahim has been living with the recent knowledge that her mother-in-law was tortured before she died in a detention camp in China’s far-western Xinjiang region back in 2018.

She hasn’t been able to bring herself to share this new information with her husband. 

Her mother-in-law, Adelaitihan Teyifu, was one of the over 1.8 million Muslim Uighurs who have been swept up in China’s deliberate and systematic repression of religious and ethnic minorities. In fact, the 62-year-old woman was a victim of what is now being called a genocide. 

“I can’t tell my husband about his mother, it is too hard for him,” Rahim tells me from her home in Cambridge, Ontario, where she resides with him and their four children. “It is like living in a nightmare.”

Rahim and her family sought asylum in Canada, and are awaiting their permanent residency. According to Statistics Canada, there were just over 1,500 Uighurs here as of 2016. Rahim’s own parents are still in China, along with her brother, who was also imprisoned in an indoctrination camp and then later released. She hasn’t been able to have much contact with them, and is fearful they will disappear like countless others and be subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and forced labour.

Canada’s parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights spent two days earlier this month hearing from witnesses about the dire plight facing the Uighur minority in a strategically valuable region of China. Witnesses urged Canada to do more to hold Chinese officials accountable and to provide support for Uighur refugees.

Just this month, the United States imposed targeted sanctions on four top Xinjiang officials under the Global Magnitsky Act. While seen as a positive step, the head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign told the committee it isn’t enough.

“We are talking about a genocide affecting a million Uighurs and that doesn’t happen unless there is a massive organization involved,” Bill Browder said. “I think that there should be a massive sanctions list for Chinese officials so that these names are known and these people are named and shamed and others who are involved start to worry [. . .] that they will be cut off from the world of international finance.”

Canada has so far resisted calls to impose similar sanctions on Chinese officials, and the country’s reticence has disappointed advocates.

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uighurs Rights Advocacy Project, has appeared in Parliament on four separate occasions to press the issue. “The question is even if you speak one thousand times, what if they don’t want to listen or if they do not want to take action?” he asked the committee, pointing out that the Canadian government has committed millions of dollars in funds to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. “Why should my tax dollars fund China’s expansionism? My tax dollars are supporting the Chinese persecution of my own people.”

Tohti also called on Canada to follow Sweden’s lead in granting refugee status to Uighurs seeking asylum without having to put them through painful hearings to prove persecution. “The whole world knows that the Chinese government is targeting all Uighurs indiscriminately; at least give those people some comfort.”

For Kamila Talendibaeva, the wife of Canadian Huseyin Celil, comfort seems a long way off. She hasn’t seen her husband in 14 years, ever since the Chinese government imprisoned him. It’s believed Celil was targeted because he had briefly advocated for Uighur human rights before settling in Canada in 2005.

Her lawyer told the committee that Canada needs to appoint a special envoy to China with the objective of freeing him. “The current government has not done all that it can or enough,” said Chris Macleod in his testimony.

Two years ago, this same subcommittee urged the government to act. Beyond lip service, little has been done. It is too often left on Uighurs like Rahim and Talendibaeva to bear the risk of speaking out against China, even as they fear for their loved ones left back home or for relatives who remain stateless in various countries around the world.

This has been a genocide in slow motion, Raziya Mahmut of the International Support for Uighurs told the committee. Canada must quicken and deepen its response.

Written by: Amira Elghawaby
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