In three different corners of the world – China, Egypt and Ethiopia – three Canadian citizens languish in prison. Each has very likely been tortured. Each is at very real risk of being tortured again. None faces any prospect of gaining their freedom soon. All seem to have been forgotten. Each deserves more from their government.
Huseyin Celil has been in prison in China since the end of June 2006. His wife and four children in Burlington have endured anxious fear for his safety ever since. Celil is an ethnic Uighur. In the far western reaches of China a decades-old campaign of brutal repression against the Uighur people has intensified in recent years. Torture, unjust imprisonment and other abuses abound. Celil thought he had escaped to safety. But he was surreptitiously arrested and sent back to China while visiting with his wife's family in nearby Uzbekistan. He has known nothing but injustice ever since. Last year, after a blatantly unfair trial, he was sentenced to a life term in prison. He believes that the Uighur people's rights should be respected. He has been convicted of being a "splitist", a Chinese government euphemism for terrorist.
In Egypt it is Mohamed el-Attar. El-Attar was arrested in Egypt on Jan. 1, 2007. He was charged with being a spy for Israel and in April was sentenced to a 15-year prison term. In open court during his trial he professed his innocence and insisted he had only confessed after being tortured with electric shocks and forced to drink his urine. Notably, El-Attar is gay and he has converted to Christianity. Gay men and Christians are often on the receiving end of human rights abuse in Egypt. Recent media raises worrying concerns about his current health and state of mind.
Bashir Makhtal has been imprisoned in Ethiopia for a year, but his exact whereabouts and fate are unknown. He was arrested at the Kenya-Somalia border and then, while awaiting legal proceedings in Kenya was suddenly and secretly flown to Somalia and then on to Ethiopia where he has disappeared into prison. He has had no legal representation. It appears that he has been brought before a military court, but his family has been given no news of why that was or what the result has been. Prisoners held in secretive detention are particularly vulnerable to torture and abuse, be it in Ethiopia or anywhere. His crime? No one knows. He has been an outspoken supporter of his ethnic group, the beleaguered Ogaden people of Ethiopia. Like the Uighurs in China, the Ogaden people have suffered decades of relentless persecution in Ethiopia.
These cases are ugly reminders of very serious global human rights concerns, including torture, the rights of minorities, unfair trials, impunity, religious discrimination, and persecution on grounds of sexual orientation. Each starkly underscores that these far-off tragedies can and do play out very close to home.
We have been down this road many times in recent years. Several of the cases are well-known to Canadians such as Maher Arar and William Sampson, tortured in Syria and Saudi Arabia, and Zahra Kazemi, tortured to death in Iran. A judicial inquiry is currently looking into the torture of three other Canadians, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El-Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, in Syria and Egypt.
Of course it is beyond Canada's power or ability to ensure that Canadians will be protected from abuses of this sort. There are simply still too many lawless corners of our world when it comes to human rights. That said, what faces these three men now is in large part a legacy of long-standing international failure to craft a global human rights order in which countries like China, Egypt and Ethiopia would face meaningful and concerted pressure from other states, including Canada, to adopt the long-needed reforms that would eradicate torture, combat discrimination and improve the quality of justice.
But even in that very imperfect world surely Canada must do anything and everything possible to protect Canadians who end up ensnared in situations of grave injustice. A key message that emerged from the public inquiry into Maher Arar's case is that the government's response to cases of Canadian citizens at risk of torture abroad has often been inadequate. Among other recommendations, Justice Dennis O'Connor, who headed that inquiry, urged that when torture is on the line, the Minister of Foreign Affairs should personally play a central role in guiding Canada's response. He stressed that there must be as much transparency and political accountability as possible in such cases.
There was a period of intense government interest in Celil's case, but that appears to have faded since his conviction. It is difficult to ascertain how active the government has been on behalf of Makhtal or El-Attar. The Egyptian lawyer who represented El-Attar at his trial worries that El-Attar has been abandoned by Canadian officials. Makhtal's family in Canada has not been able to meet with any senior Canadian government officials.
While it came far too late, in Maher Arar's case a prime ministerial envoy was eventually dispatched to Syria. Canada's Foreign Minister took up his case with his Syrian counterpart and with the head of the Arab League. Those efforts undoubtedly helped secure Arar's release.
It is time for serious and high-profile government action on these cases. There is very real reason to believe that these three men have all been tortured abroad. They must not be forgotten at home.
Alex Neve is secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. Chris MacLeod is a lawyer representing Huseyin Celil, and Lorne Waldman is a lawyer for Bashir Makhtal.