Canadian held in China given 15 years, sister says
OMAR EL AKKAD
Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in China and denied access to Canadian diplomats since March, is being held in a jail for political prisoners and has been sentenced to 15 years, according to Mr. Celil's sister.
Heyrigul Celil sent a message to the Uighur Canadian Association this weekend saying police officers in Kashgar, a city in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, told her Mr. Celil was sentenced in early August. However because Mr. Celil denies the allegations against him, he will soon be given another trial, officers told her.
The information, though unconfirmed by Chinese or Canadian officials, marks the first time Mr. Celil's sentence or whereabouts have been revealed. In defiance of multiple international agreements, China has refused to allow Canadian officials access to the 37-year-old. Chinese authorities have also refused to recognize Mr. Celil's Canadian citizenship.
Mr. Celil, a former imam at a Hamilton mosque, is a member of the Uighur people, a Muslim, Turkic-language minority group whose demand for independence has long incurred the wrath of the Chinese authorities. Mr. Celil was arrested in Uzbekistan while visiting his wife's family in March and was extradited to China three months later. He is accused of terrorist activities and the killing of a Chinese government official in Kyrgyzstan in March of 2000. His family and supporters deny the accusations, and say Mr. Celil's chances of receiving a fair trial in a Chinese court are virtually zero.
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"It is fundamentally wrong to try him in China," said Uighur Canadian Association president Mohamed Tohti, adding that Chinese authorities have yet to file a formal charge against Mr. Celil. "The trial is totally unlawful."
Reached in her home in Burlington, Mr. Celil's wife, Kamila Telendibaeva, said Mr. Celil's sister in China is trying to verify that he is in fact being held in Bajianghu Jail in Urumqi, capital city of East Turkistan. The massive facility is known to house political prisoners, she said.
"[His family doesn't] know if it's true or lies," she said. "It has been four months and we've heard nothing."
Ms. Celil, who gave birth to her fourth child in late August, said she will go to Ottawa this month to protest against Mr. Celil's detention.
Although Mr. Celil's case has garnered much attention in Canada, it has also taken on ethnic, religious and political dimensions extending well beyond its individual circumstances. Activists have repeatedly pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper to act, arguing that Mr. Celil is but one example of China's attempts to label the Uighur people as terrorists. Last month, 50 Canadian Muslim leaders also released a signed statement urging Mr. Harper to get involved.
In July, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay brought up Mr. Celil's case during discussions with his Chinese counterpart. However, those discussions seem to have had little effect -- if any -- on the prisoner's fate.
"The [Chinese] foreign affairs minister simply said, 'Oh, [Mr. Celil] is a terrorist,' " Mr. Tohti said.
So far, there is little indication that Mr. Celil will be heading back to Hamilton any time soon. However, Chinese authorities have yielded to political pressure in the cases of other Uighur prisoners. In March of 2005, Rebiya Kadeer was released after six years in a Chinese prison. Her freedom was in large part due to significant political pressure from Washington. She was released just days before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to visit China. Ms. Kadeer now heads the Uighur American Association.
If Canadian officials don't take a less passive approach to Mr. Celil's case, his supporters say, it might set a precedent that would prove chilling to many Canadian citizens.
"If Canada loses this case, China will have an open door to try any Chinese Canadian at any time," Mr. Tohti said. "That would be a disaster."