by Marilyn McKim, AI Canada Group 18
Persistence. Is that not the best quality in an Amnesty International member?
Persistence is what community groups in Hamilton/Burlington, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ottawa, Thornbury, Toronto and Vancouver exhibit in their quest for the release from a Chinese prison of Canadian Huseyin Celil. Many other individuals across the country have also added their voices to the effort. In so doing, of course, we join Huseyin’s wife Kamila and his lawyer in their substantial efforts to right the wrongs Huseyin has endured.
Each group regularly campaigns for Huseyin’s freedom under the guidance of Amnesty Canada fieldworker Wilf Ruland. No one would challenge Group 82 member Gillian Fisher’s description of him as a “valuable and trusted source”. Since 2009, her group in Thornbury has used Wilf’s advice as they plead with authorities in China and Canada to ensure Huseyin’s release. Some groups and individuals have supported his family in Burlington financially as well. This helps to cover costs of, for example, a washing machine, groceries or car maintenance. And one member of the former Group 75 in nearby Oakville regularly visits his family to offer moral support.
There’s a more detailed description of our activities below, but first, here is Huseyin’s story:
In his youth, Huseyin Celil was an imam (religious leader) in Kashgar. The city is located in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, home to about 11 million Han Chinese and 14 million Uyghur and other ethnic minorities. Huseyin’s troubles began in the early 1980s when China’s government arrested and tortured him for advocating for the rights of the members of his mosque. On his release 18 months later, could he return to his work? He knew he had no option except to escape China for his own safety.
Huseyin walked over mountains westward via Kyrgyzstan and then Uzbekistan. There he met a young woman named Kamila. The couple travelled together to Turkey where he applied successfully for refugee status from the UN’s High Commission for Refugees. Canada offered Huseyin and Kamila safety and they arrived in Burlington, Ontario in 2001. Over the next few years, they welcomed four sons. Huseyin became a Canadian citizen in 2005.
More troubles awaited Huseyin when, in the following year, Kamila’s mother in Uzbekistan became very sick. The family travelled to be at her side. Unbeknownst to Huseyin, China had asked Uzbek authorities to hold him should he ever enter the country. Police took him into custody without letting him communicate with his family or Canadian officials and deported him to China.
An unfair trial, with no opportunity to defend himself, resulted in a sentence of life in prison. That sentence was eventually reduced and Huseyin is now scheduled for release in 2037. Members of his family in China were allowed to visit him irregularly until 2016. Kamila and their sons have heard nothing of him since then.
As someone who has committed no violence against people or property, Huseyin must be freed without further delay. While he awaits the return to his family, he must be treated humanely.
The demand for humane treatment prompted members of Group 18 in Toronto to create a visual request to the prison director during a monthly meeting on Zoom. We asked for consular visits, adequate nutrition, protection from ill treatment such as solitary confinement, exercise, medical attention and, of course, release.
To mark Huseyin Celil’s 53rd birthday in March of 2022, Group 18 member Catherine Drew collected over 53 cards from group members across Canada and mailed them to the prison via FedEx. She received confirmation that the package reached a FedEx office about 1,000 km from the prison but if they ever reached their destination, we don’t know. In a cheeky move, we asked Prime Minister Trudeau to send Huseyin a birthday greeting as well. He replied that it would not be possible since Huseyin was not in Canada. Well, if Huseyin had been in Canada, there would have been no need for the request!
The groups know that visual aids help to put a spotlight on Huseyin’s unjustified detention. Group 82 highlights his case in their displays at the local library. Group 18 took a group photo to send to China’s president along with an appeal for Huseyin’s freedom.
Another strategy to add to our “tool box” of pressure points is to amplify what others are doing. Here are three examples.
· Before the Canadian election in September 2021, 18 organizations and innumerable human rights lawyers, activists and professionals sent an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau and to the leaders of four political parties. In it, they praised the efforts Canada had made to protect the rights of Michael Spavor, Robert Schellenberg and Michael Kovrig. However, they noted that Canada has “left Huseyin Celil behind” in “its choice to prioritize some Canadians over others”. They called for the five parties to include in their election platform a commitment to reunite Huseyin with his family and a call to China to allow him Canadian consular access. After Justin Trudeau won the election, Group 18’s chair Lisa Swainston followed up with a letter to him asking what progress had been made on the demands in the open letter. We have yet to receive any substantial reply.
· When the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal https://www.raoulwallenbergcentre.org/en/ launched a White Paper in the summer of 2022 about the myriad injustices against Huseyin Celil, Group 18 members sent copies of it to Prime Minister Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, China’s president and China’s ambassador to Canada. Group 164/123 is sending the White Paper to a variety of media contacts, hoping to get some much-needed attention on his case.
· In May of 2022, group members contributed their signatures to a parliamentary petition tabled by MP Garnett Genuis. His speech in the House of Commons noted that “the petitioners want the government to demand that the Chinese government recognize Mr. Celil’s Canadian citizenship and provide him with consular and legal services in accordance with international law; formally state that the release of Mr. Celil from detainment and return to Canada is a priority for the Canadian government, of concern equal to the unjust detention of the two Michaels [and] appoint a special envoy to work on securing Mr. Celil’s release.”
While the efforts mentioned above all contribute to the pressure needed on government officials, perhaps the most vital effort of the community groups engaged in the Celil case file is the constant letter writing they do. We keep Canada Post busy transmitting regular communications to Canadian and Chinese government authorities but also to Huseyin himself and to Kamila and their sons.
· Group 56 in Ottawa dedicated their April meeting to writing appeals on Huseyin’s case.
· Catherine Drew in Group 18 maintains a rota to ensure that Huseyin, Canadian and Chinese heads of state, China’s ambassador and Mélanie Joly each receive at least four letters every month.
· Groups in Hamilton/Burlington, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Yellowknife and Vancouver have likewise done their part in the past.
· All groups and individuals in the Celil Action Network sent year-end greetings in December of 2022 to both Huseyin and Kamila.
As Jennifer Wade from Group 52 in Vancouver puts it, “We must never give up no matter how futile it might seem.” Gillian Fisher adds, “We in Group 82 will continue to do everything possible to bring Mr. Cecil’s case to the attention of the Canadian government and try to exert pressure on officials to speak forcefully to their Chinese counterparts about the importance of releasing a fellow Canadian who has been wrongfully imprisoned for far too long.”
Can you help exert pressure? Please send a message postage free to:
Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly
House of Commons, Ottawa ON K1A 0A6
Or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tell her who you are and describe one concern you have about Huseyin Celil. Ask her to press the Chinese government to free Huseyin Celil from custody without any further delay.