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Huseyin Celil and one of his youngest children in a photo taken shortly before his arrest in 2006.

It was clear from the civil servant's e-mail that Husseyin Celil's case had again gone wrong. It was 2007, and Mr. Celil, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in China, was Ottawa's most important consular priority. He had been languishing in a cell on vague, terrorism-related charges for months, and as newly released government documents reveal, the foreign minister was frustrated with his ministry for bungling the file.

"[Then-Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay]is unhappy also?" wrote Dial Singh, a senior consular adviser with Foreign Affairs Canada, on Feb. 6, 2007. "And he is saying so in the press!!!! What next?"

Despite the government's intense focus on the well-publicized file, there were no Canadian officials present in a northwest China courtroom four days earlier when Mr. Celil's trial started.

"The reason that embassy officials were not at the trial is, of course, because we did not know the trial was scheduled for that date," wrote Robert Wright, Canada's ambassador to China at the time, in an e-mail to various officials.

The Globe and Mail has obtained more than 2,500 pages of government records that show how government officials handled the Celil case. For the first time, the documents shine a light on what happened behind the scenes while Beijing flouted international law, refusing to recognize Mr. Celil's Canadian citizenship and prohibiting his access to Canadian consular officials.

The case marked the Conservative government's boldest effort to put human rights ahead of its economic relationship with Beijing – an effort toned down in subsequent years, as evinced by Mr. Harper's trip to China this week.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister briefly raised Mr. Celil's case earlier this week.

Missing the start of Mr. Celil's trial was just one of several missteps. Within weeks of the date, embassy staff in Beijing were complaining that monitoring the case was straining resources and hampering the embassy's efforts to help 40 other Canadians detained in China. In four months, consular officials in China assigned to monitor Mr. Celil's case racked up $28,000 in overtime.

Mr. Celil's saga began in late March of 2006. Having left China more than a decade earlier, and having recently obtained his Canadian citizenship, he travelled to Uzbekistan with his wife to visit family. When he went to renew his visa in the country, he was detained.

Mr. Celil and his family appear to have raised concerns about the likelihood he was destined for China. In late June, those concerns proved prescient – Uzbekistan extradited Mr. Celil.

Jason Kenney, who was at the time the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary, pressed the Celil case, and Foreign Affairs officials scrupulously documented every action.

"You will note that Kenney wants another meeting and given requests from [the deputy minister of foreign affairs]and view that DFAIT has not done enough, we need to reorganize the Background section of the Q&A in chronological order, noting each representation," wrote Helen Harris, an official with the consular affairs bureau, in a June 29, 2006 e-mail.

A spokesperson for Mr. Kenney declined to make him available for comment. Both the department of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to questions.

For months, Canadian officials anticipated Mr. Celil's trial. In late December, an official with the consular affairs case-management division asked colleagues in the Canadian embassy in Beijing for a list of lawyers in Urumqi, the city in northwest China where Mr. Celil would eventually stand trial. Rather than offering a list of criminal lawyers, the embassy sent back a list of specialists in trade and economic law. "Please make sure to send names of lawyers in Urumqi who could/would take on Mr. Celil's case," the official replied.

When Mr. Celil's trial began, the Canadian embassy in Beijing authorized consular designation for three of its Chinese-speaking staff members and undertook a rotation that would have two consular officials in Urumqi every day until a verdict was delivered.

However, those officials were often prohibited from the Celil hearings. On many days, the officials fruitlessly checked a courthouse bulletin board for information on the case. "After some persistent questioning of a number of officials, there was no clear answer as to whether sentencing hearings and other procedures apart from trials are notified on the electronic bulletin board," consular officials reported.

In early March, finding no information on the Celil trial, consular officials instead sat in on an unrelated drug trafficking trial involving a citizen of the Ivory Coast. Mr. Celil was sentenced to life in prison on April 19, 2007.

A month later, the full-time Canadian consular presence in Urumqi was reduced to zero, situational reports scaled back from daily to weekly. In the years since, what little information about Mr. Celil's whereabouts and well-being have come from his family.

Kamila Telendibaeva, Mr. Celil's wife who lives in Burlington, Ont., with the couple's four children, says Mr. Celil's family in China had been able to visit him once every two months. However, since 2009, those visits have been restricted to once every six months. She says her husband is in solitary confinement and complains of stomach and eye trouble.

"I was so glad he's not forgotten," Ms. Telendibaeva said of news that Mr. Harper raised Mr. Celil's case during his China visit this week. "But I was expecting the Prime Minister to ask for his release, or at least for consular access."

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