Protest for prisoner in China

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June 23, 2008
Jon Wells
The Hamilton Spectator
Toronto (Jun 23, 2008)

Beneath a gathering storm on the outskirts of Chinatown, and across the street from the Chinese consulate, protesters gathered yesterday to urge the release of a Burlington man serving a life sentence in a Chinese jail.

They toted signs that said Canada Save Your Citizen and Free Huseyin Celil. Among the protesters was Celil's wife, Kamila Telendibaeva, who lives in Burlington with the couple's four young boys.

"I thank everyone for their support," she said, adding that more needs to be done by the Canadian government to "bring him home."

The protest comes a little more than a month before the start of the Beijing Olympics. Protest organizers and Celil's wife would like to see Canada boycott the opening ceremonies in protest at China's human rights abuses, including the case of Celil.

About two years ago, soon after obtaining his Canadian citizenship, Celil was arrested while vacationing in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, and handed over to Chinese authorities. He was convicted for alleged terrorist activities -- charges Celil's supporters say were fabricated. (Celil advocated for his native Uighur language and people in China; the Chinese government is known for not permitting its minorities to voice nationalist sentiment. Celil's supporters says there is not a shred of evidence that he engaged in anything remotely connected to terrorism.)

Celil faced a death penalty but had his sentence reduced to life in prison in April 2007. China refused to recognize his new citizenship, even though he had his new Canadian passport with him.

No Chinese officials were visible at the consulate, but someone clearly alerted the RCMP about the protest.

Two uniformed and one plain-clothes RCMP officer were at the scene, asking a few protesters their names and even asked a Hamilton Spectator reporter for his name, which was duly recorded in an officer's notebook.

The protest was modest in size -- about 50 people. Organizer Rukiye Turdush said the Canadian government has not been aggressive enough advocating for Celil.

Amnesty International spokesperson Wilf Ruland attended and spoke at the rally. Ruland, who lives in Dundas, said that in fact the Canadian government has advocated very effectively and strongly in the case.

"I can't recall a case that has had such high level support from the prime minister to the Foreign Affairs minister." He said they are launching a campaign to get Canadian officials to raise the case during the Olympics, but Amnesty International does not advocate an Olympic boycott.

"We're urging Canadians to call their MPS about it. ... It takes little steps, and this protest is one. I'm confident Huseyin Celil will be returned to Canada and not spend the rest of his life in jail in China."

The rally had to be moved from the Chinese consulate because organizers failed to apply for a protest permit. Instead, they walked to Queen's Park.

Celil's wife, wearing a tan and gold hijab, held hands with her young boys at the front of the line as the march advanced, just as the sky darkened, thunder cracked and rain started to fall.