OTTAWA — Supporters of a Canadian man imprisoned in China for a decade and a half want the next federal government to use the 2022 Beijing Olympics as a bargaining chip to bring him home.

And the advocates for Huseyin Celil say they want the deal to be a package that also wins the freedom of two other high-profile Canadian prisoners — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Kovrig and Spavor recently surpassed a grim 1,000-day milestone in Chinese prisons in what is seen by Canada and its Western allies as retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant in December 2018.

But Celil’s advocates don’t want Canadians to forget him either — or the fact that unlike Kovrig and Spavor, he has yet to be allowed a single visit by Canadian diplomats since his 2006 arrest — and are calling on whomever wins Monday’s federal election to appoint a special envoy to win his freedom.

Canadian consular visits have been banned because China doesn’t recognize Celil’s dual Canadian citizenship, obtained in 2005, one year before he was arrested in Uzbekistan by the Chinese after his long-standing advocacy for the human rights of his Muslim ethnic Uyghur minority.

“I’m hoping with the 2022 Olympic Games to be held in China that it’s another moment where there’s another opportunity to secure the release and return of Celil, whether it’s part of a package that’s done with the two Michaels or a stand-alone,” Celil’s lawyer, Chris MacLeod, said in an interview Tuesday.

“Obviously, I want all three.”

With the Winter Games set to open in February, there are growing calls to boycott the Chinese games or cancel plans to broadcast them amid a chorus of criticism over Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs, as well as its clampdowns on Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan.

Celil’s family has been caught up in that geopolitical swirl as they saw their periodic visits to him in prison cut off about five years ago. That’s when Beijing began its crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province, rounding them up into prison camps, citing the need to fight terrorism.

China’s treatment of the Uyghurs has sparked worldwide condemnation and allegations of genocide, accusations China vehemently denies.

The upshot for Celil’s family and supporters is that they are no longer sure if he is even alive because all contact with his family in China has been cut off, said MacLeod.

“I don’t have any communication with the family since the concentration camps opened in China,” said Celil’s wife, Kamila, in an interview from southern Ontario where she lives with her 16-year-old son — a child her husband has never met.

Kamila Celil said the current Liberal government hasn’t done enough to push for her husband’s release, and she would like to see more done.

MacLeod agrees, saying the current government deserves a “terrible grade” for its advocacy on behalf of Celil. He said ministers in the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper were able to commute Celil’s original death sentence to life in prison.

Alex Neve, the former Canadian secretary-general of Amnesty International, said successive Canadian politicians have failed Celil and his family.

“Over the span of 15 years of unjust imprisonment and grave human rights violations, two prime ministers and 10 ministers of foreign affairs have had the opportunity and responsibility to secure Huseyin Celil’s release from detention in China and return to his family in Canada,” Neve said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

“There have been many reassuring words, but little in the way of sustained, high-level government efforts to bring him home. The next government must turn that around. Pursuing freedom for Huseyin through every possible avenue must become an absolute top priority.”

Prior to last week’s televised federal leaders’ debate, Neve joined a coalition of several dozen human rights advocates, lawyers and many others in sending an open letter to the five major party leaders to revive their interest in Celil’s case.

While they said they supported the Canadian government’s efforts on behalf of Kovrig and Spavor, they were “gravely concerned about Canada’s foreign policy and its choice to prioritize some Canadians over others,” they said in their letter.

“Canada has been actively building a coalition in support of the two Michaels but has left Huseyin Celil behind. We are very disturbed to see him being treated as a second-class citizen and deprived of his rights.”

Foreign policy did not figure prominently in either the French or English language debates. Kovrig and Spavor warranted a passing mention in the English debate.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has said Canada should consider boycotting the Beijing 2022 Olympics. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in February abstained as prime minister from a House of Commons vote on a motion declaring the atrocities against the Uyghurs a genocide and calling on the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Olympic Games out of China.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh supported that motion.

Written By: Mike Blanchfield
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