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December 9, 2009

Can Harper bring Huseyin Celil home?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Canada-China relations have gotten onto a more friendly path recently, with Stephen Harper's trip to China and China's reciprocating with measures to ease travel to Canada and to open the door to Canadian pork.

Reuel S. AmdurCanada-China relations have gotten onto a more friendly path recently, with Stephen Harper’s trip to China and China’s reciprocating with measures to ease travel to Canada and to open the door to Canadian pork. 

However, Harper has spoken of a continuing concern about human rights in China. 

One human rights matter that he did not raise publicly in China is that of the situation in which Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil, from China’s Uyghur minority, finds himself. 

Celil sits in a Chinese prison. 

He was a Hamilton imam, and in 2006 he was arrested in Uzbekistan while visiting in-laws and deported to China at the request of the Chinese government. 

China was after him because he is a supporter of separation of Sinkiang (East Turkestan) from China.  More specifically, he was charged with terrorism and murder. 

While Chinese law provides for automatic loss of citizenship for anyone who adopts citizenship in another country, China insists that Celil is a Chinese subject and that its dealing with him is a strictly internal matter.

Consequently, they have refused to give Canadian consular access to him.  His trial was closed to the public, the press, family, and Canadian officials. 

The secret trial and the refusal of consular access leave Canada dubious about the charges. 

In any case, the refusal to allow consular access is a breach of normal protocol, and China’s refusal to recognize his Canadian citizenship is an additional violation of not only his rights but also Canada’s. 

Nevertheless, there appears that there is little that Canada can do. 

But wait, there may be a way out.  Let me explain.

Lai Changxing came to Canada in 1999 from China with his family.  His wife and children have returned to China, but he remains in Vancouver. 

China desperately wants him back for fraud.  It claims that he headed a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise centered on smuggling.  The organization is said to have operated with the complicity of government officials who were bribed and entertained in a brothel that he operated. 

Other Chinese have also come to Canada to escape the law in China, among them Gao Shan, who is accused of embezzling $150 million from customers of the Bank of China when he was a branch manager and Li Dongzhe, who is said to have worked with Gao. 

Lai has been fighting to avoid deportation.  He says that his conduct was normal business procedure in China.  He claims that he was acting just like any other Chinese businessman. 

In any case, he has been able to raise serious question about what his treatment would be if he is returned to China, even if he is returned on condition that he not be given the death penalty. 

His brother died in a labor camp.  Accounts of serious mistreatment in Chinese prisons are all too common, and Canadian courts have taken that into consideration. 

Chinese officials raised the Lai case with Harper during his official visit, and he replied that he would like to return Lai.  However, his hands are tied because of the independence of the Canadian judiciary.

Yet, there may be a way of making a deal. 

Canada wants Celil returned.  China wants Lai.  Canadian courts are reluctant to return him to the tender mercies of the Chinese correctional system.  Could there be a tit for tat that overcomes this bottleneck?  Perhaps there is.

China has agreed to a one-country, two-systems arrangement with Hong Kong. 

Unlike Mainland China, Hong Kong’s prison system, inherited from the days of British control, is seen as progressive. 

Might Hong Kong be willing to try Lai and, if found guilty, incarcerate him there? 

Would China be satisfied with such a resolution of the Lai case? 

Would Canadian courts accept the Hong Kong option? 

Would China be prepared to release Celil as a quid pro quo? 

As a sweetener, the Hong Kong option might also serve to deal with some of the other alleged fraudsters, perhaps also members of Chinese crime organizations such as the Big Circle Boys that Canada would like to see out of the country. 

It is worth Canada giving the matter some consideration and exploration. 

As for Celil, if he is allowed to return to Canada, he will undoubtedly forego any more visits to Uzbekistan. 

And as for Harper, in addition to his concerns about human rights in China he might want to look closer to home as well. 

Omar Khadr continues to sit in a cell in Guantanamo and several Muslim men are still waiting for Canada to provide compensation for the government’s complicity in their torture.

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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