Rabiya Kadeer is stuck in traffic.
To the Uyghur people, a Muslim minority group engaged with Chinese authorities in a long-running struggle for independence, Ms. Kadeer is a hero -- someone who paid dearly, and continues to pay, for standing up to Beijing.
But yesterday afternoon, on her first visit to Canada, the 60-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee was just another anonymous face on Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, on her way to Burlington to meet the wife of a Canadian citizen who, for the past nine months, has been imprisoned in China.
Ms. Kadeer, recently elected president of the World Uyghur Congress, arrived in Toronto yesterday. On Tuesday, she is scheduled to speak before a parliamentary hearing on Chinese human rights. She is the most high-profile member of the Uyghur community to visit Canada, and Chinese authorities consider her a criminal. She was invited by Calgary Conservative MP Jason Kenney, who has been working behind the scenes for the release of another Uyghur, Huseyin Celil.
Mr. Celil, a Canadian citizen and former imam at a Hamilton mosque who is originally from China, was arrested in Uzbekistan while visiting his wife's family in March. He was sent to China, which accuses him of terrorist activities and is holding him without access to Canadian consular officials or lawyers.
Mr. Celil's case has become a flashpoint in the relationship between Ottawa and Beijing, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper bringing up the 37-year-old's detention during a recent meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. China has refused to recognize Mr. Celil's Canadian citizenship. However, the only news on his whereabouts, condition or punishment have been unconfirmed and secondhand from his family in China.
"I am very impressed with Stephen Harper's strong stance, that he's putting human rights ahead of trade," Ms. Kadeer said yesterday through a translator, as she was driven from downtown Toronto to Burlington to meet Kamila Telendibaeva, Mr. Celil's wife. "It's great encouragement for all oppressed people around the world."
Ms. Kadeer brings more than just moral support to Mr. Celil's wife and four children. The World Uyghur Congress, which has Uyghur Canadian Association head Mehmet Tohti as one of its vice-presidents, is a relatively powerful group, funded by an endowment from the U.S. Congress. For months, Ms. Kadeer has travelled around the United States and Europe, discussing Mr. Celil's case with officials at groups ranging from Amnesty International to the U.S. State Department, urging them to exert pressure on China to release him.
Ms. Kadeer knows the value of international pressure; without it, she may still be in a Chinese jail cell today.
In 1999, she was tried and imprisoned in China for leaking "state secrets" abroad; she was sending Chinese newspaper clippings to her husband in the United States.
Before then, she had been a successful businesswoman in China's Xinjiang region. She used part of her fortune to provide employment for fellow Uyghurs, especially women. She quickly fell out of favour with Chinese authorities after her husband, a Uyghur activist, fled to the U.S. in 1996.
Six years after her arrest, Ms. Kadeer was released from prison. Although the official reason for discharge was medical grounds, it is widely believed she was freed -- three days before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to visit China -- because of U.S. pressure on the Chinese government.
Since then, Ms. Kadeer has championed the Uyghur cause from her home base in Virginia. This year, she has been on more than 30 trips abroad, raising human-rights issues with groups both governmental and non-governmental. In 2004, her work earned her the Rafto Prize for human rights.
However, Ms. Kadeer continues to pay for running afoul of Chinese authorities. In June, her three sons were arrested by Chinese police and her daughter was placed under house arrest.
Two weeks ago, Ms. Kadeer was elected president of the World Uyghur Congress, a move that angered the Chinese government. The same day she was elected, a Chinese court sentenced her youngest son to seven years imprisonment for tax evasion.
An invitation to speak at a parliamentary hearing in Ottawa will give her a chance to bring up, among other things, the imprisonment of her children. She says two of them have been released because of international pressure. She also plans to raise issues ranging from what she describes as a Chinese campaign of "cultural genocide" against the Uyghurs to Mr. Celil's detention. And between the hearing and a parliamentary reception for her hosted by Mr. Kenney, she will have an influential audience.
Yesterday, though, the audience was Mr. Celil's family.
After two hours in traffic, Ms. Kadeer finally arrived to a hero's welcome at the modest Celil home. Ms. Telendibaeva's mother, who has travelled to Canada to help the family since Mr. Celil's arrest, greeted her with tears and a hug.
Over soup, tea and lamb-and-onion pastries, Ms. Kadeer reassured the two women, speaking in confident 10-minute bursts, her non-stop hand gestures emphasizing every sentence.
Asked how hopeful she is that her tireless advocacy will bring about a break in Mr. Celil's case, Ms. Kadeer betrayed no hint of fear at the task of taking on one of the world's most powerful governments.
"Truth, justice is on our side," she said. "No matter how developed China becomes, China cannot erase our history. They cannot erase who we are."