A western passport should mean something

The Ottawa Citizen
Aisha Sherazi, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, May 05, 2007

I shall never forget my father telling me about his visit to India in the 1980s. Until that time, despite the fact that he had lived in England since 1967, he still held romantic ideas that he would return to his homeland one day.

He related how he had arrived at Bombay airport, excited to see family and friends. But to his dismay, upon arrival his trip was somewhat spoiled by an encounter with a customs official. The jovial officer asked him where he had come from and a little about his life in Britain. Suddenly, the man whispered to him, "Sir, how much for your passport?"

My father's shocked expression must have come across as interest. The man went on to explain, "I'll buy your passport from you, and you say you lost it. It is very easy." Horrified, my father, who rarely gets angry, revealed the side that we never like to see.

Years later he would tell me that it helped him understand that Britain, although not perfect, was far better with its system of justice and accountability compared with his place of birth, where corruption and a large class divide were holding it back.

This week, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay was in China. Among other tasks, he tried to broach the subject of Huseyin Celil.

A member of the Uighur minority group in Xinjiang, Mr. Celil was born and raised in China. He became wanted in the country after campaigning for the rights of the Uighur people in the early 1990s. He was arrested in 1994 and allegedly tortured, but escaped from prison in 2000 and fled to Uzbekistan and Turkey. From there he reached Canada, where he was given citizenship.

But during a March 2006 visit to his wife's relatives in Uzbekistan, Mr. Celil was arrested and extradited to China on terrorism charges. Canada's government protested his sentencing to a life term in prison and China's continued refusal to allow him access to Canadian consular assistance. Earlier this month, he was convicted by a court in China's far western Xinjiang region of the crimes of "separating China" and "organizing, leading and participating in terrorist groups, organizations."

Mr. MacKay has been assured that Mr. Celil is not being tortured, but given China's human-rights record, Canadian officials fear he may have been. Chinese authorities continue to refuse to give Mr. Celil consular access, something he is entitled to. As a Canadian he should be allowed visits and provided with food, clothing and medicines and the right for Canadian counsel to attend his trials. On Thursday the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion demanding that Canada be given consular access to Mr. Celil. Canada must continue to press for this.

It is clear that Mr. Celil is not being recognized as a Canadian citizen, regardless of his passport. His wife and children are eager for his return to Canada, where they are waiting for him to come "home."

According to Amnesty International, "tens of thousands of people in China continue to be detained or imprisoned in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association, and were at serious risk of torture or ill-treatment. Thousands of people have been sentenced to death or executed. In Tibet and other ethnic Tibetan areas, freedom of expression and religion continue to be severely restricted."

China continues to persecute the Muslim Uighur minority community in Xinjiang, where thousands of people have been detained or imprisoned, and executed following unfair trials for so-called "separatist" or "terrorist" offences.

Nurmuhemmet Yasin, an Uighur writer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for publishing Wild Pigeon, an allegorical story about the life of the Uighur people in China. Peaceful Uighur protests led to the Gulja Massacre in 1997, which was largely hidden from the world. China continues to use the international "war against terrorism" as a pretext for cracking down on peaceful dissent.

China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games on the understanding it would clean up its human-rights record. Unless western countries continue to put pressure on China and countries like it, I doubt there will be many positive changes for oppressed people.

For argument's sake, we could speculate for a moment and wonder if Mr. Celil is guilty of what he is being accused of in China. But that is really irrelevant. When immigrants flee from countries where human rights are in question, they come to the west seeking help sincerely.

They come looking for those things that my father found in Britain: justice, accountability and freedoms that are not discussed in the countries they came from.

When citizens of western countries are not dealt with in the manner we expect, it is disappointing to say the least. It tells me that my western passport doesn't quite command the respect I thought it did. It tells me that western passports aren't quite worth what they used to be.

Aisha Sherazi is an Ottawa freelance writer.