As Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor readjust to life in Canada after almost three gruelling years in a Chinese prison, supporters are begging government officials not to forget the third Canadian still detained in China: Huseyin Celil.

This November, Celil will have completed 15 years of a prison sentence that began in 2006 after he was arrested in Uzbekistan and extradited to China.

Here are five things to know about him:


A Uyghur Muslim, Celil has been a human rights advocate for the Uyghurs, China’s most persecuted community.


He was first arrested in China in 1994, while living in Xinjiang, and was charged with multiple murder and terrorism-related charges. Escaping China via Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, he sought asylum in Ankara and was later granted a refugee status with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The Government of Canada also designated him a refugee, allowing him entry in 2001 where he settled in Hamilton, Ont., with his wife Kamila Telendibayeva and three of his six children. His remaining three children, he said, were prevented by the Chinese government from emigrating to Canada.

Celil became a Canadian citizen in 2005.


A year after gaining citizenship in Canada, Celil and his wife travelled to Uzebkistan to visit her family and attempt to remove his remaining children from China.

In March 2006, he was arrested by Uzbek police while renewing his visitor’s visa and was deported to China, despite the Canadian government’s request for his release.

He went on trial again in China in August 2006 on charges of terrorism, where it was alleged that he had attacked a Chinese delegation in Xinjiang in 2002, and was sentenced to life in prison, which he began serving in November the same year.

Unlike Spavor and Kovrig, Celil has not had a single Canadian consular visit, as Beijing does not recognize his Canadian citizenship on the basis that he was born in China.

China also barred all contact with family five years ago, leaving his relatives unsure whether he is even alive today.

“I don’t have any communication with the family since the concentration camps opened in China,” Celil’s wife, Kamila, told the National Post.

In 2017, a Chinese Communist party official stated that Cecil had his life sentenced reduced to 18 years, after he visited a  re-education camp where he “participated in a lot of speaking and used his own case as educational material and talked to more than 200,000 people.”


During Celil’s 2006 trial, the then-Harper government negotiated with Chinese officials to commute his death penalty to life in prison.

The Liberal government, however, has not done enough to push for her husband’s release, says his wife Kamila Celil.

Celil’s lawyer Chris MacLeod agreed and said the current government deserves a “terrible grade” for its advocacy on behalf of Celil.

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.”

Critics have also pointed out that Celil’s name never came up during any of the federal leaders’ campaigns for the 2021 fall election — Spavor and Kovrig got a passing mention during one of the election debates.


Prior to the federal leader’s election debate, several dozen human rights advocates, lawyers and others, including Never, sent an open letter to the five major party leaders to bring awareness to 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.”

Written by: Devika Desai
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