The wife of a Burlington man serving a life sentence in China after being accused of terrorism greeted news her husband’s sentence has been reduced with relief on Wednesday.
But she insisted now is the time for the Canadian government to intervene and get her husband released and sent back to Canada.
“I’m happy to hear that news from China,” said Kamila Telendibaeva, who has been separated from her husband Huseyin Celil for 10 years since his arrest in March 2006.
“But I say it’s time for the Canadian government to do more now … Mr. Trudeau, he should do something. I’m expecting more from the Canadian government. It’s shameful,” she told the Toronto Star.
Celil, a Uighur human rights activist who fled China to come to Canada in the 1990s as a refugee, was one of 11 prisoners in the far-western region of Xinjiang who had their sentences reduced, according to the state news agency Xinhua.
“My crimes caused serious damage to my country, Xinjiang, my family and children that can never be made up for,” the news agency reported Celil as saying.
Celil’s apparent apology did not surprise his wife.
“Maybe … they forced him to apologize. I understand because he has been 10 years in prison and especially the Chinese prison. It’s unbelievable,” Telendibaeva said.
According to the Chinese news agency, Celil’s sentence has been cut from life to 20 years. He has already served 10 years.
“I have had no contact with him since 2006,” said Telendibaeva. “Huseyin, as a Canadian citizen and a human being, he’s missing a lot.”
The couple has four children, the youngest of whom has never seen his father.
As to Celil’s health and state of mind, Telendibaeva has tried to contact his sister, who she believes visits him in prison, but whenever she calls the phone line goes dead, she said.
Celil has not received any Canadian consular assistance, she said. The Chinese government rejects his Canadian citizenship, saying he is a Chinese citizen who belongs to the Uighur minority group in China. And so Chinese officials refused and continue to refuse to allow any Canadian consular visits. The lack of Canadian consular assistance is especially troubling for Telendibaeva.
She said the Canadian government hasn’t pushed the Chinese government hard enough to get access to her husband. At the very least, Canadian officials should be visiting Celil’s sister in China to find out his condition and how often she gets to see him, she said.
As to what happens next, Telendibaeva isn’t sure. She rejects the idea of a prison transfer, saying her husband has not done anything wrong.
“He’s innocent,” she said. “We want him freed. Release him.”
Last month Telendibaeva was part of an Amnesty International Canada news event in Ottawa with Alex Neve, its secretary general, and Mohamed Fahmy, a former Al Jazeera journalist who was released from prison in Egypt in September, demanding Canada do more to protect the interests of imprisoned Canadians abroad.
Celil was arrested while visiting relatives in Uzbekistan. He was eventually handed over to Chinese authorities, who accused him of being a terrorist and sentenced him to life in prison.
Telendibaeva said the Chinese government said her husband was leader of a Uighur rights group and was a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which wants to establish an independent state called East Turkestan for the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in China.
Amnesty International Canada would not comment on or confirm the reduction in Celil’s prison sentence.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress exile group, called the commutations a "political propaganda tool" meant to divert attention from Beijing's repressive policies.
Ottawa is seeking official confirmation of the commutation of Celil’s sentence, said François Lasalle, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.
“Mr. Huseyin Celil’s case remains important to the government of Canada and continues to be raised at senior levels,” said Lasalle. “We continue to call upon the Chinese government to permit Canadian officials to conduct a consular visit to monitor Mr. Celil’s well-being. Our goal is to ensure that Mr. Celil is safe and treated fairly, in accordance with international norms.”
– With files from The Canadian Press