The Department of Foreign Affairs was scrambling for information yesterday after receiving word that a Canadian man, Huseyin Celil, being held in China could be executed as early as next week, The Globe and Mail has learned.
His sister in China called the imprisoned man's wife in Burlington, Ont., on Tuesday, saying he was being held in a prison in Xinjiang province and could be executed by Aug. 10. Mr. Celil's wife, Kamila Telendibaeva, said a police officer in the eastern Chinese city of Kashgar leaked the details to her sister-in-law, who has been trying to find his whereabouts for weeks.
"She was crying when she called me," Ms. Telendibaeva said. "I told her not to cry because there is still time. Time is running out, but we can still save him."
Mr. Celil (pronounced je-lil) was arrested in Uzbekistan in March while visiting his wife's family. In June he was extradited to China, where he could face the death penalty for an alleged involvement in so-called separatist activities.
Until now Canadian officials had no idea where Mr. Celil was being held, because the Chinese government would not disclose the location. His sister has heard conflicting reports of him being held in either Kashgar or Urumqi. It also refused to recognize Mr. Celil's Canadian citizenship, which he got in November of last year.
Born in China's far-western Xinjiang province, Mr. Celil is a Uighur, a Muslim, Turkic-language minority that has long fought with the Chinese government for greater freedom. Chinese officials say Mr. Celil is a terrorist who, among other things, helped assassinate a political leader in Kyrgyzstan, an allegation his family and his lawyer deny.
Canadian government officials were tipped off about the phone call on Wednesday by Mohamed Tohti, a friend of Mr. Celil and president of the Uyghur Canadian Association.
"After I got the shocking news from [Mr. Celil's wife]Kamila, I shared this information with government officials," said Mr. Tohti, who has been in contact with Conservative MP Jason Kenney, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's parliamentary secretary.
Mr. Kenney, who was attending a Conservative caucus retreat yesterday in Cornwall, Ont., said that he found the reports troubling and that the government was doing everything possible to confirm them.
"Should we confirm the veracity of these reports, the government will obviously express its concern in the most serious terms possible," he said. Sources told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Kenney met with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay for 30 minutes on Thursday to discuss the issue, and that a Canadian consular official in China was dispatched to find out more about Mr. Celil's condition and to confirm the possible execution order.
Mr. Harper may also soon become involved in the case. Sources said he would place a phone call to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao or President Hu Jintao if it were confirmed that Mr. Celil faces death.
For weeks, Canadian officials trying to gain information about Mr. Celil's detention have been frustrated by their Chinese counterparts.
"Foreign Affairs needs to act with great speed; Mr. Celil is in danger," said Chris McLeod, the imprisoned man's lawyer. "The government simply isn't doing enough. They need to send an envoy now. The Prime Minister needs to intervene in a very direct way. Whether that means recalling our ambassador, something needs to be done."
In 1994, Mr. Celil was arrested in China on charges of forming a political party, his wife said. After serving a month in prison he escaped, eventually buying false documents to enter Uzbekistan. He made his way to Turkey before being granted refugee status in Canada in 2001.
Meanwhile, in China, a court sentenced Mr. Celil in absentia to death for his alleged role in the anti-government political movement. His wife believes the conviction will allow the Chinese to speed up a possible execution.
"How can I raise my children, if I don't have a husband and they don't have a father?" said Ms. Telendibaeva, who is to give birth to her fourth child in less than three weeks. "He will be killed if we don't act now."
Before his arrest, Mr. Celil was an imam at a Hamilton mosque and studying accounting at Mohawk College.
Mr. MacKay said yesterday he met with China's foreign minister when the two were in Malaysia recently and raised the Celil case. As a result, Mr. MacKay said Canadian embassy officials met with Chinese officials in China and "have secured from them that he will not be executed.''
Canada will continue to push for consular access, Mr. MacKay added, and as Mr. Celil goes through the court process, Ottawa will do "what we can to ensure that his rights are respected and that he is given due process.''