Missing. Lost. Forgotten.
These are some of the words Kamila Telendibaeva uses to describe her husband, Huseyin Celil. Celil is a Canadian citizen who has been imprisoned in China since 2006, and who has been barely heard of ever since.
Telendibaeva had all but given hope that her husband, and the father of her four children, would ever be released. But now, with Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig safely back in Canada, she has newfound hope there will finally be a development in her husband’s case as well.
“I was really happy when the two Michaels landed in Canada,” she told Global News. “I’m very positive for Huseyin’s case now. I’m very positive. I’m looking forward to bringing him home.”
Celil had long been an outspoken advocate for the Uyghur people.
The Uyghurs are a minority group in China who live primarily in the western province of Xinjiang and in neighbouring Central Asian countries. China accuses Celil of being a separatist and a terrorist, and sentenced him to life in prison in 2007. That sentence has since been commuted to 18 years in prison.
Video: Hostage Diplomacy: The forgotten Canadian imprisoned in China
China had even jailed him for his outspokenness in the 1990s. But his wife says his only crime was speaking out for the rights of the Uyghur people.
“He didn’t hurt anyone, any Chinese or any human being,” she told Global News. “He just had strong speech, strong speech.”
In 2006, five years after first arriving in Canada, Celil travelled back to Uzbekistan with his wife to visit family. He was detained by Uzbek authorities and then taken to China, where he has been in prison ever since. Canadian consular officials have not had any access to him, and neither has his wife, who has struggled to raise their four children by herself in Burlington, Ont.
“I was alone without family here, with no one. I raised four kids,” Telendibaeva said between sobs. “It’s been devastating, it’s been really hard.”
‘We see a real opportunity’
Chris MacLeod, the lawyer who has been representing Telendibaeva since her husband was first arrested, says the release of the Michaels, coupled with the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, presents a golden opportunity for Celil’s case to finally get resolved.
“Obviously, the chill with Canada-China relations has been lifted to some extent with the return, or the release, of (Huawei CFO) Meng (Wanzhou) and the return of the two Michaels,” MacLeod says. “So that provides a fresh opportunity to look at Huseyin and his release and return.”
The Olympics, MacLeod says, gives China the chance to put its best face forward to the rest of the world and to “showcase to the world the better faith of your country which all countries do when they host the games.”
And there is a bit of momentum following the Michaels’ release. MacLeod told Global News that he has had some communication with Canadian officials since the release and safe return of Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
“They said they’re on (Celil’s case) and that (the case is) of concern and interest.” But, he adds, “the proof is in the pudding.”
Until now, Ottawa has struggled to make Celil’s case much of a priority.
Video: The two Michaels are back on Canadian soil (Global News)
In February 2020, Canada’s then newly appointed ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, struggled to remember the case of Huseyin Celil when asked about it at a House of Commons committee meeting. Barton had to be corrected when he stated that Celil was not a Canadian citizen (he is).
And unlike Spavor and Kovrig, most Canadians have never heard the name Huseyin Celil.
Alex Neve, the former secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, is one of the foremost authorities on human rights abuses around the world. He says the Celil case “is absolutely one of the most egregious, if not the most egregious instance of long-term imprisonment of a Canadian citizen on completely unjust grounds, that has gone on far, far too long.”
One of the issues that has hampered action on the case, Neve says, is the fact that Celil is a dual national. China, which does not recognize dual citizenship, considers him one of its own, even though he was granted Canadian citizenship 20 years ago. His status as a dual national, Neve fears, is one of the reasons Celil’s case hasn’t risen to the top, or attracted as much attention as other Canadians who have been imprisoned in China in the past, including the two Michaels, or Kevin and Julia Garratt before them.
“Dual national Canadians often feel like they aren’t given as much high-level concern and attention as Canadians who don’t have dual nationality,” Neve said. “We just don’t see their cases rise to the top of the list, and it’s impossible to deny that to a certain degree, there’s an aspect of racism that underlies that.”
Celil is not the only Canadian, or the only one with dual citizenship, jailed in China.
There are around 115 Canadians in Chinese prisons. They include Canadian citizens like pro-democracy advocate Wang Bingzhang, whose case of arrest and detention bears some striking similarities to Celil’s. Wang, like Celil, was promoting ideas that offended the Chinese regime. He’s been in jail for two decades.
‘They are not forthcoming’
In the absence of successful efforts by Western governments to secure the release of their citizens in China, some individuals have stepped forward to nudge foreign countries toward leniency.
John Kamm is one of those people – a former chemical salesman-turned-China human rights defender who has advocated for thousands of people caught up in the Chinese legal juggernaut.
Kamm heads up a San Francisco-based not-for-profit organization called The Dui Hua Foundation. Dui Hua means “dialogue” in Chinese.
He says China’s tactic of keeping cases out of sight and out of mind is very deliberate and strategic.
“They are not forthcoming,” he told Global News.
Kamm and his organization keep meticulous records of all the various foreign detainees held in Chinese prisons. This includes Celil. Over the years, Kamm has managed to communicate with Chinese officials and to secure concessions for many of those detained.
“I never make things personal. I never attack Chinese officials by name.”
He says it is very difficult to tell to what extent releasing prisoners is a priority for China.
In Canada, new data shows that public opinion toward China is falling — fast. According to an Angus Reid survey released on Oct. 7, just 10 per cent of Canadians have a “favourable” or “very favourable” view of China, compared with 38 per cent who saw China in a positive light before the Michaels were arrested, and 58 per cent who had a similar feeling in 2005.
Moreover, the percentage of Canadians who believe that Canada should stick to its principles with respect to the rule of law and human rights has increased 14 points since 2019, according to the same survey.
But negative public perception of China by citizens of other countries has not fazed Beijing too much, according to Kamm. China, like other countries, has its reasons for doing what it does, and negative attention did not count for much in the depths of the Meng Wanzhou-two Michaels crisis. Beijing, he said, was always in it “for the long haul.”
The trouble with China, Kamm says, is that there is very little transparency, so it’s hard to tell what’s really going on.
“It’s very hard to ascertain exactly what it is that motivates the Chinese government to do what it does,” he said.
“They certainly want to keep you guessing.”
—with files from Jeff Semple
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