Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen, Uyghur activist and Burlington resident, remains detained in China for almost 15 years now.
For the last four years, the 51-year-old has been incommunicado — increasing the desperation of his wife Kamila Telendibaeva and their four children, not knowing if he is alive.
They have not heard anything from him since 2017 when China ramped up the internment of Uyghur Muslims in a “sprawling and secretive network of internment camps.” Until then, the family had occasional contact with his family in Xinjiang province.
Celil was on China’s radar for advocating for Uyghur Muslims. Even before fleeing to Canada in 2001, he was behind bars in China, on charges of teaching the language, faith and culture of the Uyghurs.
Academic and UN experts have reported on China’s imprisonment of Uyghurs in concentration and “deradicalization” camps, targeting them with forced labour, sexual violence, population control methods, and sweeping surveillance. China has been denying the accusations.
Celil was arrested in March 2006, when he and the family went to Uzbekistan to visit his wife’s family. China asked the Uzbek government to arrest and hand him over. Canada was aware but never intervened before he was handed over to the Chinese.
Despite the arrest, his unfair trial and sentence, and lack of information about him, there is a lull in Canada about Celil. There is virtually no mention of him by the government or in the local press.
In fact, early last year, Dominic Barton, the Canadian ambassador to China, embarrassingly stated that he could not meet Celil (in prison), because he was not a Canadian citizen. The minister of foreign affairs at the time, François-Philippe Champagne, had to correct the fact and a few days later Barton apologized to the family for the mistake.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden spoke late February, Biden made a pledge to help free two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, imprisoned in China. “You know we’re going to work together until we get their safe return,” Biden stated.
But no mention of Huseyin Celil.
Canadian nationals Kovrig and Spavor were detained in China in an apparent act of retaliation after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 on U.S. charges of violating sanctions on Iran.
In a followup discussion with the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau also brought up the issue of Kovrig and Spavor. Again, no mention of Celil.
In February, the House of Commons passed a non-binding resolution, accusing the Chinese government of committing genocide against Uyghurs in its western Xinjiang region as per the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. The United States also recognizes China’s actions as genocide.
A movement against the oppression of Uyghurs is gaining some traction. Will this help Huseyin Celil? Will Ottawa take up his case or is he a second-class citizen? The Liberal government needs to answer these questions.
Chris MacLeod is a founding partner of Cambridge LLP and represents Huseyin Celil and his family.