Canadian's detention in China sparks furor

Critics rally outside consulate in Toronto, as secrecy envelops Huseyin Celil

With a report from Reuters

At least once a week three-year-old Abdul Celil picks up the telephone and pretends to talk to his father, Huseyin.

With nothing but a dial tone at the other end, the boy asks how his daddy is and when he's coming home.

He never gets an answer so he asks his mother. She tells him soon but fears that may be a lie.

The truth is Kamila Telendibaeva doesn't know when or even if her husband is coming back to their Burlington, Ont., home. She doesn't even know if he's alive.

"That's my worst fear," she said yesterday outside the Chinese consulate in Toronto.

"I don't know if he's being tortured or killed. I can't talk to him. I don't even know where he is. No one does."

Mr. Celil (pronounced je-lil) became a Canadian citizen last November.

This year he travelled to Uzbekistan to visit his wife's family. He was arrested in March and extradited last month to China, where he could face the death penalty for "separatist" activities.

He is being held in China under a veil of secrecy. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said Beijing will not say where Mr. Celil is and won't even acknowledge his Canadian citizenship.

He hasn't spoken with his family or his lawyer since his arrest.

Critics are calling the official Canadian response too slow and too weak.

"The Canadian embassy in Beijing has not done everything I wish they would do to express our distress," said Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat based in China.

"I feel the ambassador should be more involved in the case. We need to be speaking to the foreign ministry and finding out where Mr. Celil is and ensure his rights are being respected."

Ms. Telendibaeva, who is seven months pregnant with her fourth child, said she is exhausted by efforts to find her husband.

At a protest yesterday, she joined about 20 people shouting "Shame on China" in an effort to raise awareness about the case.

Mr. Celil was born in China's far-western Xinjiang province. He is a Uighur -- a Muslim, Turkic-language minority group that has long fought with the Chinese government for greater freedom.

Before his arrest, Mr. Celil was an imam at a Hamilton mosque and studying accounting at Mohawk College. Family and friends say he is a devoted husband.

Cihan Aydin describes him as a mentor.

"He's just so peaceful and is always looking to help people however he can," said Mr. Uildirim, 30, who asked Mr. Celil to be the imam at his wedding.

"He taught me a lot and was there when anyone needed him."

Chinese officials say Mr. Celil is a terrorist who, among other things, helped assassinate a political leader in Kyrgyzstan.

In 1994, he was arrested in China on charges of forming a political party, his wife said. After serving just a month in prison, he escaped, eventually buying false documents to enter Uzbekistan.

That is where the couple met, while he was working as a fabric salesman in 1998. They married a year later and spent two years in Turkey before coming to Canada as refugees in 2001.

Meanwhile, in China, a court sentenced Mr. Celil to death in absentia for his alleged role in the anti-government political movement.

Amnesty International yesterday slammed the Chinese government for failing to uphold basic human rights. It also called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to personally address the issue before the situation deteriorates.

"I think we are worried that we are not yet seeing a firm and assertive response now that [Mr. Celil] is in China," said Alex Neve, general secretary of Amnesty International Canada.

"We need our highest levels of government involved."

Mr. MacKay wouldn't disclose the government's next move, only saying it's doing everything it can.

"The Chinese won't acknowledge it . . . When you mention his name -- we've approached the ambassador, we've approached the foreign minister -- what they say is 'Oh, do you mean that terrorist, that Uighur terrorist?' " the Foreign Minister said.

In the meantime, Ms. Telendibaeva waits and worries about her husband's fate.

"I don't know what to do any more," she said. "I want him to see his baby but I don't know if he will. We need help. I think the government is our only hope."