Sunday, February 18, 2007

Who is Huseyin Celil?

Caught in the grip of Beijing

He is a very stubborn man, a pious imam and a proud Uighur. He's drawn the wrath of China's authorities who brand him a terrorist. Huseyin Celil is also a Canadian, jailed in an unknown prison in western China. And his case is straining relations between the two nations

URUMQI, CHINA and BURLINGTON, ONT. -- The Chinese justice system took its first crack at Huseyin Celil on a late summer day in 1994.

In most countries, his offence would not have provoked an arrest and a jail term. The young imam was accused of using a megaphone to amplify the call to prayers at his mosque, standard practice in most Muslim countries. In China, it landed him in prison.

The 25-year-old religious leader was jailed for 48 days, according to his family, the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game that would stretch over 13 years, two continents, and at least six countries. Even in the years he spent outside the country, China's interest in Mr. Celil never seemed to wane; it even led to regular searches of his relatives' homes long after he was gone.

Mr. Celil believed he had finally reached safety when he won protection from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and then entered Canada in 2001.

But that refuge proved temporary. Today Mr. Celil languishes in an unknown prison in the far west of China, facing a heavy sentence or possible execution on terrorism allegations. His case has triggered a crisis in Canadian-Chinese relations.

A close look at Mr. Celil's life story, based on interviews and research by The Globe and Mail over the past several months in Canada and China, reveals a portrait of an intensely stubborn man who defied the will of the Chinese authorities for most of his life.

In China's eyes, Mr. Celil is not just a religious man from a farming community, he is a citizen accused of terrorism, and the definition of terrorism extends well beyond the realm of violence. Human-rights groups argue that peaceful protest or rebellion easily fall under the scope of what China considers a crime.

In the official Chinese view of the Celil case, Canada matters little.

"Of course, as a courtesy, we will brief your embassy officials [about what happens to Mr. Celil]," He Yafei, China's assistant minister of foreign affairs for North America, said this month, "but as a matter of courtesy, not as a matter of obligation."

China has so far produced no details to support the charges against Mr. Celil. Senior Canadian officials have repeatedly tried to gain access to the imprisoned Canadian, but China refuses to budge. It is on this point that Ottawa and Beijing have had trouble seeing eye-to-eye. Canadian officials have not questioned China's right to level charges against Mr. Celil, but they do object to being prohibited from seeing him.

All the Canadian government knows is that Mr. Celil is charged in connection with terrorist acts.

"I have never seen any documentation of direct evidence whatsoever to link Mr. Celil [to these acts]," Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said in an interview yesterday. In his strongest criticism yet of Beijing's handling of the Celil case, Mr. MacKay said Chinese authorities have shown "complete indifference to our desire, and more importantly [Mr. Celil's family's] desire to know about his well-being."

China regularly denies travel documentation to anyone seen as defying the party line on national unity. As such, Mr. Celil has never been allowed to carry a Chinese passport, his family and lawyers say. They add that he actively tried to renounce his Chinese citizenship upon his arrival in Canada, but China has no mechanism for people to do so.

China maintains a tight grip on Xinjiang, the predominantly Muslim region on the western fringes of the country. By refusing to kowtow to Chinese limits on religion, Mr. Celil doomed himself to a lifetime of conflict with state police and security agents.

Mr. Celil was born on March 1, 1969, on a small farm about 70 kilometres from Kashgar, a Muslim city in Xinjiang. He was the second-youngest of nine children. His impoverished parents grew cotton and wheat on a single hectare of farmland, earning an annual income of barely $250 (U.S.).

He and his family were members of the Uighur ethnic people -- the traditional majority in Xinjiang. The Uighurs, like the Tibetans, were resentful of Chinese dominance of their homeland. Like the Tibetans, they have been subjected to decades of repression by Chinese authorities who feared an independence movement.

Uighur activists have fought for greater autonomy from China, many of them seeking to regain the independence that the region briefly claimed in the 1930s and the 1940s after Muslim rebellions against Chinese rule. By the late 1980s, the conflict would erupt into sporadic violence, and China responded with a harsh crackdown.

At the age of 13, Mr. Celil graduated from primary school. But, unlike his eight siblings who stayed on the farm, Mr. Celil decided to continue his education by going to mosques to study the Koran. After three years at rural mosques, he moved to Kashgar to continue his religious studies for another two years.

It was an unusual move for a farm boy, revealing the defiant nature that continued throughout his life. He became the first in his family to study the Koran. "We were very proud of him," said his older brother, Sarmeti Celil.

By the early 1990s, still in his early 20s, Mr. Celil was an imam at a small mosque in Kashgar. He was also running a small clothing shop to earn a living.

The young imam was already attracting the attention of the Chinese police. He was ordered to obey Chinese restrictions on what he could say to the believers at his mosque, but his family says he sometimes violated them.

In the early 1990s, China was in the midst of a massive campaign against Muslim leaders in Xinjiang. To maintain control of the restive Muslim region, it imposed a series of rules on the mosques. Cameras were installed inside, while police agents attended the services and public servants were warned that they could lose their jobs if they attended.

At the peak of the conflict, terrorists detonated several bombs in the region, including on public buses. China blamed the Uighurs, and hundreds were rounded up and arrested, far more than the small handful who may have been involved in the violent attacks, human-rights groups say. China began to use the word "terrorist" to apply to almost anyone who advocated independence for the Uighurs.

After years of harassment from the police and a term in prison, Mr. Celil decided to flee the country. His family says he managed to leave China for the first time in 1995 to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Muslim holy city. A few months later, after a brief return to Kashgar, he fled to Central Asia, making his way eventually to Kyrgyzstan, China's neighbour to the northwest, where he continued in the clothing trade and served as an imam in a Uighur mosque. Both the trips to Mecca and Kyrgyzstan, according to family members in Canada, were made using fake passports. China, they say, never granted Mr. Celil a passport; the first and last legitimate one he held was Canadian.

His family and his lawyer say that's why, in the two years he spent in Kyrgyzstan, the last nine months of which were in a jail cell, Mr. Celil used the name Guler Dilaver.

It was 1998, and the bazaars in Kyrgyzstan were thriving.

Mr. Celil was living in the capital city of Bishkek at the time, selling silk and clothes in the sprawling markets alongside other Uighur traders. There was a sizable Uighur community in the country, but almost all of them were considered illegal, so a black market in passports evolved within the community. According to relatives and friends who knew him at the time, Mr. Celil purchased one. The name on the Turkish document was Guler Dilaver, born in 1955. Using this passport, Mr. Celil lived in Kyrgyzstan for two years, working as a trader but also preaching Islam on the side.

In the middle of 1998, Mr. Celil was picked up by Kyrgyzstani police. According to statements made to the Uighur Canadian Association by both his former cellmate and former lawyer, Mr. Celil was charged with crimes, including "creating hatred among the people," a charge related to his religious sermons. He spent nine months in jail waiting for a trial. And when that trial finally came, his lawyer at the time alleges, there were Chinese officials in the courtroom watching. Both his lawyer and cellmate say he was eventually acquitted in December of 1998. The first thing he did upon his release, they say, is flee Kyrgyzstan.

During the same period, beginning in 1996, when Mr. Celil first left China, Chinese police were keeping a close watch on his family in Xinjiang. They searched the house almost every month, looking for religious texts and demanding to know his whereabouts, his family says.

His family did not find that surprising. Every family with a son who was trained at a mosque or who had fled the country was routinely raided and searched, they say.

"Of course we were angry about it, but they are the police and so we have no choice," Sarmeti Celil said. "We are afraid of the police. We suffered a lot of stress. Our lives were always interrupted. There was never anything they wanted in our rooms, so why did they keep searching us?"

Mr. Celil's first step on what would be an arduous journey to Canada began when he crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. Still using a fake passport, he sought refuge with the Uighur community, eventually meeting a man in a local bazaar who not only gave him refuge, but introduced him to his daughter.

Kamila Telendibaeva and Mr. Celil were married a month later.

"He was educated," Ms. Telendibaeva recalls. "He knew the Koran, he knew the hadith," she said, referring to the Muslim holy book and the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed.

(Mr. Celil's first marriage, to a woman who lived near his family's farm in Xinjiang, had ended in divorce.)

But it was only after Ms. Telendibaeva and Mr. Celil were married that he told her he'd just finished a stint in jail and needed to flee the region. The honeymoon was barely over when, in 1999, Mr. Celil left for Turkey with three fellow refugees. In the summer of 1999, the four managed to enter Turkey through Syria. Ms. Telendibaeva joined them a month later.

The couple had their first child, Mohammad, while in Turkey. About six months after his birth, Mohammad's parents found out their son had serious health problems and need near-constant supervision.

Mr. Celil and his wife applied for refugee status with UNHCR. While the United Nations agency would have performed the initial background check on the couple, Canadian officials would have performed a number of security checks to ensure the refugees needed protection.

In the spring of 2000, their claim was accepted, and in October of 2001, they left for Canada after two years in Turkey.

It was during those two years that Guler Dilaver allegedly killed a man.

According to a letter released by the Uzbek embassy in London, Mr. Dilaver is wanted by Kyrgyzstan police for involvement in the "assassination of the head of Uighur society in Kyrgyz Republic on 28 March, 2000, and terrorist act against the state delegation of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China on 25 May, 2000." The Uzbek letter claims Mr. Celil and Mr. Dilaver are the same person.

A UNHCR spokeswoman said it would be highly unlikely for a refugee-in-waiting to travel outside the country in which he claimed asylum, since he would have no travel documents.

Mr. Celil's Canadian lawyer agrees. "It's just not realistic for this guy to have done that," said Chris MacLeod. "He would have forsaken his UNHCR status, left his disabled kid and wife, forged documents, made it there and back -- it's just not doable."

The Uzbek embassy letter also claims that Mr. Celil is on an Interpol wanted list. However, the Interpol referred to in the letter is the "Interpol National Central Bureau in Uzbekistan." Had Mr. Celil been on the Western Interpol list, Mr. MacLeod said, he would have never passed Canadian security checks. "Rest assured that [Canadian immigration officials] did not treat Huseyin any differently than any other Muslim man from Central Asia."

But the Dilaver allegations wouldn't surface for several more years. In October of 2001, Mr. Celil and his wife had other things on their minds, like their trip to Canada, the first country Mr. Celil could legitimately call home.

There aren't too many Uighurs in Halifax.

After a six-hour trip via Holland, Mr. Celil and his wife touched down in Canada for the first time in late 2001. "It was a bit boring, there was no one in our community," said Ms. Telendibaeva, who was pregnant with the couple's second child while in Halifax.

They studied English, Mr. Celil delivered food and occasionally cooked for an Arabic restaurant. But after 1½ years, they decided to move to Hamilton. There aren't too many Uighurs there, either, but the Turkish community, with which the couple share a common language, is much larger. They stayed there for two years before moving into a modest home in nearby Burlington.

It was a happy time for the couple. Ms. Telendibaeva became pregnant with their third child. Mr. Celil was back to studying, and volunteered part-time at a Turkish mosque. To top it off, the couple received their Canadian citizenship in November of 2005.

In an indirect way, that was when Mr. Celil's troubles really began.

By then, Ms. Telendibaeva had been away from her family for about six years. Her mother was sick and wanted to see her grandchildren. So in February of 2006, just three months after obtaining Canadian passports, Mr. Celil and his family flew to central Asia. They had no trouble getting visas to Kyrgyzstan, where Mr. Celil had been jailed in 1998, or Uzbekistan, where Ms. Telendibaeva's family lived.

In late March, Mr. Celil went with Ms. Telendibaeva's brother and father to a government office in Uzbekistan to ask for a one-week visa extension, so Mr. Celil's son could recuperate from a circumcision operation before travelling. After waiting for several hours, the three were confronted by Uzbek police, who told them they needed to speak with Mr. Celil. It was the last time Ms. Telendibaeva or her family saw him.

For five days, the family awaited word of Mr. Celil's fate. When nothing came, they went to a Canadian consular office. "[Canadian officials] asked why he was arrested," Ms. Telendibaeva said. "I told them, 'go find out.' "

But by the time Ms. Telendibaeva, pregnant with the couple's fourth child, had to go back to Canada in May, she knew virtually nothing about what was going to happen to her husband.

A few weeks after Mr. Celil's detention, Chris MacLeod received an urgent call at his home in Hamilton, outlining Mr. Celil's plight. Mr. MacLeod's wife is from Iran, and he had met Mr. Celil at social functions. Although it had nothing to do with the kind of law he normally practised -- he's a business-litigation expert -- he decided to take the case.

It didn't take long before Ottawa became acquainted with Mr. Celil's case. On his way to a meeting in Asia in the spring of 2006, Mr. MacKay met with the Uzbek ambassador. Mr. MacKay said the ambassador initially denied any knowledge of Mr. Celil's whereabouts, even though Mr. Celil was still detained in Uzbekistan at the time, but promised to look into it.

The Uzbeks did look into it. On June 26, they informed Canadian officials that Mr. Celil had been deported to China. Canadian officials would soon see just what China thought of the detained Canadian.

During a trip to Kuala Lumpur in July, Mr. MacKay tried to bring up Mr. Celil's case with his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing. Upon hearing the detained man's name, a puzzled look came over Mr. Li's face until an aide whispered something in his ear, Mr. MacKay recalled.

"Oh," Mr. Li said. "You mean the terrorist." For the rest of the meeting, that's how Mr. Li referred to Mr. Celil.

That meeting contrasted sharply with the one Mr. MacKay had with Ms. Telendibaeva after her husband's detention. By now heavily pregnant, the woman was, as Mr. MacKay saw, deeply distraught.

"The stress and strain was written on her face," Mr. Mackay said. "Both the consequences and impact [of the Celil case] were obvious from Day 1."

In October of last year, Prime Minster Stephen Harper visited Toronto. He was there to speak on crime prevention and other issues. But in the meeting room of a Marriot hotel suite, he met Ms. Telendibaeva and her lawyer. By then, Mr. Celil had already been sent to China. It was the first time anyone could recall a prime minister talking in person with the spouse of a Canadian detained abroad. The meeting was scheduled for 10 minutes; it lasted 40.

"That was the turning point," Mr. MacLeod said. "The Prime Minister could put a face to the file."

The meeting was perhaps the most direct sign that Mr. Harper was taking the case seriously. He brought Mr. Celil's case up with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Hanoi in November, and publicly stated he wouldn't put the countries' economic relationship ahead of human rights.

Information out of China in the months after Mr. Celil's deportation was scarce. Relying on second- and third-hand reports, his family first heard that he was to be executed for vague terrorism charges; then that he had been sentenced to 15 years, a rumour that turned out to be false; then that he had been granted another trial.

His whereabouts in China and the details of the charges against him are unknown. The first time anyone other than his prison guards got a look at him was about two weeks ago, when he appeared before a court in northwest China. Canadian consular officials didn't show up for the hearing, clearly angering Mr. Harper. The highest offices in Ottawa quickly instructed Canadian officials in China to trek northwest and try to meet with Mr. Celil and observe the next stage of his trial.

But as far as Mr. Celil's family knows, there is no next stage; his six-hour appearance in early February was the trial. The next time he shows up in a courtroom, they suspect, will be to hear his sentence.

These days, much of Ms. Telendibaeva's time is taken up with her children. Her oldest son needs a wheelchair and near-constant supervision; her youngest, born last summer, has never seen his father.

Mr. Celil's imprisonment has made life complicated for 29-year-old Ms. Telendibaeva in more ways than one. Her youngest son's birth certificate is proving difficult to obtain; he cannot inherit his father's last name without his father's signature. She had trouble getting six-month-old Zubeyir into the United States last month when she went to testify about Mr. Celil's case before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which gives policy recommendations to the President and Congress. Ms. Telendibaeva's mother arrived in Canada last year to help her daughter take care of the children, and renewing her visa is yet another challenge.

Sitting in the cramped living room of her small Burlington house, Ms. Telendibaeva speaks in broken but improving English. Welfare pays the $411 rent on a home that, since last year, has been visited by myriad journalists, politicians and activists from around the world. The walls are decorated with pictures of Mecca, religious scripture and a framed drawing of a mansion, a helicopter and a speedboat. Above the drawing are the words: "All I want is world peace and . . ."

Some time in the next month, Ms. Telendibaeva's husband will make another court appearance in China. His trial might continue, or he might be sentenced. Canadian officials might get to meet with him, or they might not. He might see his wife and children again, or he might not.

Asked what message she would send to her husband if she could, Ms. Telendibaeva paused, the incessant noise of children's toys blaring in the background."I don't know," she said finally. "We miss him."

The charges

Huseyin Celil's lawyer says he has been charged under two articles of the Chinese criminal code.

Article 103: "Whoever organizes, plots or acts to split the country or undermine national unification, the ringleader, or the one whose crime is grave, is to be sentenced to life imprisonment or not less than 10 years of fixed-term imprisonment; other active participants are to be sentenced to not less than three but not more than 10 years of fixed-term imprisonment; and other participants are to be sentenced to not more than three years of fixed-term imprisonment, criminal detention, control, or deprivation of political rights."

Article 120: "Whoever organizes, leads, and actively participates in a terrorist organization is to be sentenced to not less than three years but not more than 10 years of fixed-term imprisonment; other participants are to be sentenced to not more than three years of fixed-term imprisonment, criminal detention or control. Whoever commits the crime in the preceding paragraph and also commits murder, explosion, or kidnapping is to be punished according to the regulations for punishing multiple crimes."

*****

The plight of the Uighurs

Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Asians who live mainly in western China. Their history has been interwoven with that of China since they rose to prominence in the eighth century, when they established their first true state in Mongolia. Relations between the Chinese and the Uighurs were never entirely comfortable, however, and the Chinese considered them a barbarian people.

In fact, the Uighurs were advanced in art, architecture, music and medicine, and they practised a complex agriculture, using an extensive system of canals for irrigation. Their history had included adherence to shamanism, Manicheism and Buddhism, but at about the turn of the 10th century, they embraced Islam.

In 1911, after the Nationalist Chinese overthrew the Manchu dynasty and established a republic, the Uighurs, who had been forcibly annexed by the Manchu rulers, staged a series of uprisings in favour of independence. Two successful attempts to set up their own republic were overthrown by military intervention.

After the Chinese revolution in 1949, the Uighurs fell under Communist Party rule. The government flooded Xinjiang, the province in which most Uighurs live, with Han Chinese migrants; pushed the locals to learn Mandarin; and restricted the practice of Islam.

Relations between the modern Chinese state and its Uighur minority are still fraught. Beijing believes the Uighurs pose a separatist threat and Uighurs complain that oil and gas production in Xinjiang has been conducted at their expense, without just recompense. In the mid-1990s, Uighurs carried out widespread protests and even bombings against Chinese rule.

China, for its part, has launched a crackdown on the Uighurs, arresting and executing many in trials criticized by human-rights groups as unfair. China has long linked the region to terrorism, and has attacked what it says are terrorists and training camps in the province.

But while many Uighurs want greater autonomy for their region, few advocate the cause of independence that motivates a handful of extremist groups.

Human-rights observers believe China uses the idea of a Uighur terrorist threat as an excuse to crack down on all dissent. They accuse the government of carrying out arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, torture and religious discrimination in the region.

*****

Seeking a haven around the world

Huseyin Celil's globetrotting began with his efforts to escape first Chinese and then Kyrgystan authorities. His story ends up back in China, where he is now imprisoned.

Start

China

1994: Kyrgyzstan

1998: Uzbekistan

Turkmenistan

Iran

Iraq

Syria

1999: Turkey

Oct., 2001: Toronto

Halifax

2003: Hamilton

2005: Burlington

Feb., 2006: Moscow

March, 2006: Kyrgyzstan

June, 2006: China

Finish

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