URUMQI, China — When he was marched in handcuffs into a courtroom in this remote Chinese city last week, Huseyin Celil was like a man returning from the grave.
His family had been convinced that he was probably dead. For months, they had been hounding the prisons of Urumqi, begging for any news of him. They searched computer records and spoke to prison staff, desperate for any sign that the Canadian religious leader was still alive.
Nobody had any record of him. He had disappeared into the murky Chinese justice system, where more people are executed every year than in the rest of the world combined.
“My son had vanished and I thought he was killed,” said his mother, 75-year-old Shalehan Spander, in the first full-length interview given by Mr. Celil's family members in China since his arrest last year.
Last week, unexpectedly, came word of a trial date in this city in the far west of China. She went to the courtroom last Friday, along with 19 other relatives, and watched in with amazement as two policemen brought Mr. Celil into the room. “My heart was pounding,” his mother said.
Her joy was short-lived. A few hours later, her son testified that his Chinese captors had threatened to have him “buried alive” if he refused to sign a confession. She collapsed, sobbing, and had to be helped out of the courtroom by two relatives.
“When I heard his words, I was afraid we would lose him,” Mrs. Spander said on Thursday.
Last fall, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said China had made a commitment that the Canadian imam would not be executed for his alleged terrorist activities. But in Urumqi, where Mr. Celil is still believed to be held in an unidentified prison, his family has heard no such promise from anyone — not from the Chinese justice officials at the court hearing last Friday, and not from the Canadian diplomats who came to Urumqi this week after Prime Minister Stephen Harper criticized the Canadian embassy for failing to send anyone to the court hearing.
The two diplomats arrived on Wednesday to meet the family members. Yesterday, the diplomats held a meeting with a senior Urumqi court administrator, but were unable to extract any concessions from him.
The Canadian embassy in Beijing refused to allow the two diplomats to talk to the news media. But according to Mr. Celil's family members, who met with them last night, the diplomats were unable to persuade the court administrator to allow them to meet Mr. Celil. The Chinese official said the embassy could apply for a meeting, and the request would be considered if the reasons were deemed acceptable, but no promises were made, the family members were told.
The Canadian diplomats raised the issue of Mr. Celil's Canadian citizenship, but obtained no response, the relatives said.
“We all know that he is a Canadian citizen, and we can't understand why China denies it,” his sister said in the interview yesterday.
“We haven't seen him for 12 years. He is a Canadian citizen and China has no right to arrest him.”
The family has never assumed that Mr. Celil would be shielded from the death penalty. “We had tried to find him, but we had always failed,” said Mr. Celil's 49-year-old brother, Sarmeti Celil. “I thought he was not living in this world any more.”
He was relieved to see his brother alive in the courtroom last Friday. “But when I heard that he had been threatened with death, I felt very sad and upset,” Sarmeti Celil said. “We don't know if he will be alive or dead, or how many years he could be in prison.”
Asked if they fear for his life, Mr. Celil's mother and sister both answered with tears and sobs. “I haven't seen my son for 12 years,” Mrs. Spander said. “I just want to see him. Then I will not complain, even if I die now. But they refuse to let us meet.”
At the court hearing, Mr. Celil said that he was subjected to two weeks of intense all-night interrogation by Chinese policemen who vowed he would be “buried alive or disappeared” if he failed to sign the confession, the relatives said.
“It's terrible,” said Mr. Celil's 39-year-old sister, Heyrigul Celil. “I just wanted to cry. It's like a nightmare. We often cry because it seems hopeless. It's so unfair.”
Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected Canada's contention that Mr. Celil is a Canadian citizen. They even refuse to recognize the name on his Canadian passport. Instead they call him by his Chinese name, Yu Shanjiang, and they insist that he is a terrorist and a Chinese citizen.
“Yu Shanjiang is a key member of the East Turkestan Movement, which is an international terrorist organization designated by the United Nations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said yesterday.
“He was involved in a series of terrorist activities and he was an international fugitive,” Ms. Jiang said.
Mr. Celil is a member of the Uyghur minority, a Turkic Muslim people in the far west of China who have suffered decades of persecution from the Chinese government. China alleges that Islamic separatists are leading a violent campaign to set up an independent “East Turkestan” nation.
Mr. Celil fled China in the mid-1990s and travelled through Central Asia and Turkey before finally obtaining refugee status in Canada. He was an ordinary family man who read Islamic texts and worked as a trader in neighbouring Uzbekistan to provide income for his family, his relatives said.
“He read the Koran, but that doesn't make him a terrorist,” his sister said. “If he hadn't read those Islamic books and left China, none of this would have happened. We trust our brother and he would never attend any kind of terrorist activity. We've talked to him by telephone for the past 12 years and he never said anything about such things. He only asked about our children and their studies.”