Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said yesterday the federal government has been given assurances that a Canadian citizen held in China on suspicion of terrorism will not be executed regardless of the outcome of his trial.
However, Mr. MacKay's spokesman, Dan Dugas, explained later that what the minister meant was that Beijing will live up to a commitment it made to Uzbekistan concerning Huseyin Celil. "Canada considered China's assurance in September to the Uzbeks to be an international obligation and expects it to keep its obligations," he said.
Mr. Celil, who lived in Hamilton, has been held without charge and denied access to a lawyer since he was arrested in Uzbekistan in March and transferred to China.
In violation of international agreements to which it is signatory, China refuses to let him see Canadian diplomats.
Mr. Celil, 37, is a member of the Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-language minority group in China. The group's quest for greater independence has long upset officials in Beijing.
Since his arrest, news of Mr. Celil's condition has often been flimsy at best.
The latest news on his fate arrived in September by way of his sister in China. In a message to the Uighur Canadian Association, Heyrigul Celil said a police officer told her Mr. Celil had been sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, she said, officers told her that since he denies all the allegations against him, he will be given another trial.
In August, Chinese officials publicly said Mr. Celil was not about to be killed, after his family reported his execution was imminent.
Mr. Celil's case has become a flashpoint in relations between Canada and China.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke strongly last week about the man's detention ahead of a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and brought up the case during the meeting.
Reached yesterday, Mr. Celil's lawyer in Canada said the announcement about his client still leaves questions unanswered.
"My question is, there's a stay of execution -- when was the trial and what was he charged with?" Chris MacLeod said. He wants assurances Mr. Celil has not suffered cruel and unusual punishment.
Mr. MacLeod said he and Mr. Celil's wife had numerous discussions with Canadian officials in the months leading up to Mr. Harper's meeting with Mr. Hu.
"We're glad he brought [Mr. Celil's case]up," Mr. MacLeod said he and Mr. Celil's wife are glad that Mr. Harper discussed the case with Mr. Hu. "It sends a strong message to Beijing that this is a national priority."