When the nightmare had just begun, the Burlington woman received help from a Turkish translator to communicate how she felt about her husband’s fate.
That was a long time ago. Today, Kamila Telendibaeva speaks English just fine, and her husband, Burlington’s Huseyin Celil, 52, has been held in a Chinese jail 15 years.
“It’s hard for me to talk about it, all the emotions, my heart starts beating,” she told The Spectator. “When I get out the pictures of the kids, back then they were small … when I see the pictures it hurts me a lot.”
The four boys she shares with her husband but has been raising herself are 14, 16, 18, and 21.
Huseyin Celil, of Burlington, Ont., is seen in this undated handout photo.The Canadian Press file photo
She was six months pregnant on March 27, 2006, and visiting family overseas with her husband and children, when he was taken away. She has had no communication with him since, not a letter or phone call all this time.
“I haven’t even heard his voice. It’s very hard. I can’t really explain it in words. It is awful.”
The jailing of Celil was big news at the time. Media covered Telendibaeva speaking at an Amnesty International news conference on Parliament Hill, and protesting in the rain in front of the Chinese consulate in Toronto.
Eight months after his incarceration, Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised the issue with Chinese leaders at a summit in Vietnam. Reports quoted a Canadian official who said that when they mentioned Celil, Chinese diplomats responded: “You mean that Uyghur terrorist?”
Celil grew up among about 12 million Uyghurs in northwestern China, in the region of Xinjiang, that was annexed by the Chinese 70 years ago. Uyghurs speak a language similar to Turkish. Like most Uyghurs, Celil is Muslim.
Reports say that in the mid-2000s, the Chinese government moved about one million ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities into internment camps, accusing them of terrorist separatism.
Kamila Telendibaeva’s husband, Huseyin Celil, was taken away by Chinese authorities 15 years ago when the Burlington couple was visiting her family in Uzbekistan. She has had no communication with him since.Barry Gray/The Hamilton Spectator
Six months ago, Canada was among 39 countries condemning China for abusing the Uyghurs, including policies of forced labour and sterilization.
In his teens, Celil agitated for Uyghur human rights, taking part in free speech rallies in China, which Telendibaeva says led to his first arrest when he was 14 or 15.
In his early 20s, while on a trip to Uzbekistan — a Central Asian country that does not share a border with China — he was again arrested and jailed.
It was on a trip in 1998 to Uzbekistan that he met Telendibaeva, and they married in 1999. Soon after they moved to Turkey, where their oldest child was born, and in 2001 immigrated to Canada, with Celil claiming political refugee status.
“It was October when we went to Canada, I remember that; we were preparing for Halloween,” she says.
They each worked various jobs over the years; at one point he delivered pizza in Hamilton, and she worked at a drugstore and drove for Uber. Celil was also an imam at the Ebu Bekir Islamic Centre in east Hamilton.
Kamila Telendibaeva in 2007, with sons Mohammad, 7, Abdujelil, 3, Badruddin, 2 and Zubeyir, six months.The Hamilton Spectator file photo
Telendibaeva says it was the wrong decision for the couple to leave Canada with their kids and visit her parents in Uzbekistan in 2006. But she had not seen her family in about seven years, and her mother had been sick.
“And China is so far from Uzbekistan. I didn’t think China would know he was there.”
During the visit, she could tell her husband was being watched. He decided that rather than return to Canada through Moscow, the way they had come, he would fly through Turkey.
Just before he was able to change his ticket, local officials came calling at her parents’ house.
“They were very polite … And then they said, ‘We’ve been looking for this guy since 1992.’”
At one point they asked him to come answer questions at an office. She never saw him again.
Reports in 2007 said Celil appeared in a Chinese courtroom and told the court he had been tortured.
After initially allowing members of his family in China to visit him in jail once every six months, he was cut off entirely from visits and all external communications.
Telendibaeva, 41, says she receives regular calls from an official in Ottawa with Global Affairs Canada, and last month spoke on the phone with Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton.
Kamila Telendibaeva and son Abdul Jelil Celil, 3, protesting for the freedom of her husband Huseyin Celil, in 2006.Toronto Star file photo
He had no new information about Celil. He asked if she had an address for her husband’s family in China, but she no longer has their contact information. His family keeps a low profile, terrified of being sent to a prison camp themselves.
In response to a Spectator request for comment, Global Affairs spokesperson Jason Kung wrote in an email: “Canada remains deeply concerned by this case. The Government of Canada continues to press the Chinese government for consular access to Mr. Celil. The case has been raised at senior levels and we continue to engage with China to verify Mr. Celil’s well-being. Consular officials remain in regular contact with Mr. Celil’s family in Canada. Due to provisions of the Privacy Act, we cannot release further details on this case.”
“I appreciate the phone calls,” says Telendibaeva. “They are very nice, but they are doing (diplomacy) in small steps, they are very soft with China, they don’t know how to defend their citizens. It’s frustrating, of course … I can’t believe it’s been 15 years.”
While the federal government lobbying China has not led to her husband’s freedom, his Canadian connection has helped accomplish one thing: survival.
Or so she believes, because she concedes she doesn’t know for sure.
“China wanted to give him the death penalty but he was travelling with a Canadian passport. The Canadian passport is the only thing keeping him alive.”
Original Link: thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/2021/04/15/chinese-prison-uyghur-huseyin-celil.html
Jon Wells is a Hamilton-based reporter and feature writer for The Spectator. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org