More than 20 current and former parliamentarians, as well as rights activists and ex-diplomats, have written Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urging the release of a Canadian man on the 16-year anniversary of his controversial detention.

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

Signatories to the letter include four former federal cabinet ministers: Irwin Cotler, Allan Rock, Peter MacKay and Lawrence Cannon.

In the letter to Mr. Wang, dated Sunday, the signatories say all news of Mr. Celil’s fate ceased about six years ago. “No one has heard from him – nor any updates on his location, status or health – since 2016.”

Mr. Celil was sentenced on charges related to “terrorism,” or as the Chinese state-run media Xinhua described it: “taking part in terrorist activities and plotting to split the country.”

China refuses to recognize his Canadian citizenship and has barred Canadian officials from seeing him.

Former diplomats who added their names to the letter include Yves Fortier and Paul Heinbecker, who both served as Canada’s envoy to the United Nations.

Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, also signed.

The letter criticizes China’s handling of Mr. Celil, saying his terrorism charges were for “peaceful activities on Canadian soil.” It notes he had contacted the Chinese embassy to officially renounce his Chinese citizenship before his 2006 trip.

Mr. Celil was forbidden from speaking with his legal counsel at his trial, his lawyers were barred from providing evidence in his favour and Canadian officials were blocked from accessing the courtroom.

He was originally sentenced to death but this was reduced to life imprisonment in 2014 – and then a 20-year sentence beginning in 2018.

“He will be approaching 70 years old upon release, having never met his youngest son,” the letter said.

“Nonetheless, your government continues to imprison Mr. Celil … and deny him his rights. In doing so, your government ignores its own domestic laws and constitution, as well as international laws and norms, regarding freedom of expression, freedom of religion and rights to due process.”

The letter, written by McGill Law’s Wallenberg Advocacy Group, asked the Chinese Foreign Minister to grant Canadian government officials access to Mr. Celil, update Canada on his status and release him.

Last week, Liberal MPs pressed Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly to appoint a special envoy to China who could pursue his release.

“An update on Mr. Celil’s status is more urgent than ever given the additional precarity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Written by: Steven Chase
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