Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly is facing calls from members of her own Liberal caucus to appoint a special envoy to China who could pursue the release of a Canadian citizen jailed by Beijing in controversial circumstances for more than 15 years.

They say it’s not fair the case of Huseyin Celil has received significantly less attention than the plight of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians who were locked up for more than 1,000 days on what Ottawa called bogus charges.

Mr. Celil, a Uyghur-Canadian activist, was arrested during a family trip to Uzbekistan in 2006 and handed over to the Chinese. He was later convicted on terrorism charges in a trial that Canada denounced.

His crime, in the eyes of the Chinese government, was alleged links to organizations seeking independence for Xinjiang, the western region of China where the Uyghurs are the main ethnic group.

According to Mehmet Tohti, the Ottawa-based executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, Mr. Celil’s relatives in China were last in contact with him in 2017. As far as he knows, Mr. Celil remains in a jail in Xinjiang, where researchers and critics say the Chinese government has committed grave human-rights violations against the largely Muslim population of Uyghurs and other minorities.

Mr. Celil’s wife and four sons in Burlington, Ont., have not talked to him since 2006, said his Canadian lawyer, Chris MacLeod. He added that China has never granted Canada consular access to Mr. Celil because Beijing denies his Canadian citizenship.

“He was detained in Uzbekistan while travelling on a Canadian passport. It’s really a case of rendition,” Mr. MacLeod said.

Huseyin Celil and one of his youngest children in a photo taken shortly before his arrest in 2006.Handout

He said he suspects Mr. Celil came to China’s attention for “simply speaking out for democracy and his people in Canada.”

On Thursday, Ms. Joly and her deputy minister, Marta Morgan, testified at the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, and two Liberal MPs, Sameer Zuberi, and Ali Ehsassi, pressed Ms. Morgan on appointing an envoy to investigate Mr. Celil’s case.

“We’ve given a lot of attention to the two Michaels. Huseyin Celil has not benefited from the same amount of attention,” Mr. Zuberi, MP for the Montreal riding of Pierrefonds – Dollard, said at the committee.

Ms. Morgan declined to commit to a special envoy. “We are very actively engaged since Mr. Celil’s initial detention in 2006. We continue to raise his case at every opportunity we get,” she told MPs.

Mr. Ehsassi, Liberal MP for the Toronto-area riding of Willowdale, also asked Ms. Morgan for an envoy.

“As you know, the facts of that case are painful,” he said.

Ms. Joly’s office declined to comment on whether it would appoint a special envoy.

Adrien Blanchard, press secretary for Ms. Joly, said Canada is nonetheless “deeply concerned about Mr. Celil,” and continues to call on the Chinese government to give Canadian officials consular access to determine his well-being and offer him assistance.

The Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, whose international chair is former federal Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, is urging Canada to appoint a special envoy on unjustly detained Canadians and political prisoners, a group that would include Mr. Celil.

Mr. Cotler said in an interview that Mr. Celil qualifies as a victim of arbitrary detention. “He’s not only arbitrarily detained, but a forcibly disappeared person. Canada has an obligation – it’s not a matter of discretion – to make representations on behalf of Huseyin Celil.”

Mr. Mehmet, a Uyghur-Canadian, said remarks on Mr. Celil by the Canadian ambassador to China in February, 2020, suggested to him that Ottawa pays little attention to the imprisoned man. Back in 2020, Dominic Barton, the envoy at the time, was asked about Mr. Celil while testifying before Parliament’s Canada-China Committee, and told MPs he wasn’t a Canadian.

Mr. Barton said he had looked at the case and “because he is not a Canadian-citizenship holder, we are not able to get access to him on the consular service side.” He was later corrected by then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne.

Mr. MacLeod, Mr. Celil’s lawyer, said Mr. Barton seriously committed himself to the Uyghur-Canadian’s case after being apprised of the facts.

China has faced trenchant criticism in recent years for its treatment of Uyghurs. In February, 2021, the House of Commons adopted a resolution declaring that China’s repression of Uyghurs and other minorities amounted to genocide – an assessment shared by the U.S. government. Parliaments in France, the Netherlands, Britain and Belgium have passed similar resolutions.

Allegations include mass incarceration, destruction of religious sites, forced labour, forced sterilization and other forms of population control, as well as torture. Forced labour, they say, is the latest stage in Beijing’s efforts to exert control in an area with a large population of Muslim people, which Beijing has described as infected by extremism.

Written by: Steven Chase
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