China mum on fate of detained Canadian

Demands for legal consular access denied more than three weeks into disappearance

BEIJING -- More than three weeks after a Canadian citizen vanished into Chinese police custody, Chinese authorities are rejecting all of Canada's requests for information on the fate of the 37-year-old man.

The prisoner, Huseyincan Celil, was allowed into Canada as a political refugee in 2001 and became a Canadian citizen. But he was arrested in Uzbekistan on March 27 and extradited last month to China, where he could face the death penalty for alleged "separatist" activities in a Muslim province.

For three weeks, the Canadian government has been trying to get access to Mr. Celil to give him the consular service that any imprisoned Canadian is entitled to receive. But Chinese authorities are refusing to give any details of his whereabouts, even though they are obliged under international law to permit consular access to a foreigner who is detained in their custody.

The Globe and Mail has also made repeated requests for information about Mr. Celil to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security over the past several weeks, but both ministries have refused to comment.

The only hint of his fate has come from a Chinese newspaper, which mentioned his case as an example of China's fight against "terrorism."

The Canadian embassy in Beijing has confirmed that it has failed to obtain any details of Mr. Celil's fate or whereabouts, even after three weeks of requests and a formal diplomatic note -- one of the toughest actions that a government can take without affecting its relations with another country.

"We are making every effort to obtain immediate consular access to Mr. Celil in China," a spokeswoman for the Canadian Foreign Ministry said recently. "We will continue efforts to confirm Mr. Celil's well-being and to ensure he is afforded due process and his rights are protected."

Mr. Celil was arrested in China in the mid-1990s for his work on behalf of the Uighur people, the Muslim minority in the Xinjiang province of western China. He was sentenced to death in absentia for founding a political party to work for the Uighurs. After escaping from China, he travelled to Turkey and came to Canada as a refugee in 2001.

Chris MacLeod, the lawyer for Mr. Celil's family in Burlington, Ont., says the Canadian government is not taking enough action in the case.

"It's very troubling," he said in an interview. "A Canadian citizen is being punted around like a football. He travels to Uzbekistan and finds himself in the interior of China. It's unbelievable."

Mr. MacLeod is seeking a visa to enter China to search for Mr. Celil. He also wants Canada to send an official envoy to China to pursue the case.

"Diplomatic notes just aren't going to solve this," he said. "Canada hasn't taken any significant steps yet. We're a country of immigrants and refugees, and there should be an onus on the Canadian government to take a clear stand in protecting him. We should be a safe haven for people who are persecuted elsewhere."

Mohamed Tohti, president of the Uighur Canadian Association, said the Chinese government seems to be saying that Mr. Celil is still a Chinese citizen, even though the Chinese constitution specifies that someone who gains citizenship in a foreign country automatically loses Chinese citizenship.

"If this loophole opens, there are a million Chinese-Canadians who could be punished by China," he said.

Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat in China who is now a political scientist at Brock University, said the Chinese authorities are using the Celil case to send "a message of disdain" to the new Conservative government in Ottawa.

"China has developed greater confidence of its role in the world in recent years," Mr. Burton said in an interview, "and sees Canada as less and less important to its national interests."

He criticized the Canadian embassy for failing to act strongly enough. "I cannot but think that if Mr. Celil was not a Uighur-Canadian, the embassy would be much more vigorous in pursuing this matter."

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