When Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen being held in China for alleged terrorist-related crimes, appeared in a Chinese court last week, he was essentially on his own. No Canadian official showed up to offer support. This was a serious mistake, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is right to call Canadian diplomats on the carpet for failing to do their utmost to ensure that Mr. Celil's rights are not abused behind the closed doors of China's judicial system.
It is entirely possible that the Chinese would bar official observers from entering the courtroom in any case. They regard Mr. Celil as a Chinese citizen above all else, and his trial as a domestic matter that is of no concern to outsiders. But that is beside the point. His is an important human-rights case, on which Mr. Harper has expended a fair bit of the government's political capital (and risked straining relations with Beijing), and it merits the full attention of Canada's diplomatic corps.
As a Canadian citizen, Mr. Celil has certain consular rights, which have been blatantly violated by the Chinese government. Chinese authorities have refused to recognize his Canadian status and have not allowed him to meet with Canadian officials or to retain a Canadian lawyer. In fact, he has languished in a Chinese jail since last June with little access to legal advice of any kind. Last Friday, when he appeared at a hearing that lasted six hours, he asked to see the credentials of his state-appointed lawyer and was rebuffed by the court, according to the Uyghur Canadian Association, which has kept close tabs on the case.
Mr. Celil's plight began last March when he was arrested in Uzbekistan while visiting his wife's relatives. He was travelling on his Canadian passport. The repressive Uzbek regime, which maintains close ties to Beijing, extradited him to China in defiance of Canadian objections and in a clear violation of international law.
The rights activist had escaped in 1994 from a Chinese prison. He had been sent there for agitating on behalf of his people, the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim, Turkic-language minority group of more than eight million people in western China. After making his way to Uzbekistan using false documents, he was later granted refugee status in Turkey and moved to Canada with his wife in 2001.
The Chinese Communists, who have a long history of repressing the political, religious and cultural rights of ethnic minorities, have accused Mr. Celil of participating in terrorist activities, a not uncommon charge levelled against Muslim activists in China since 9/11. But they have promised that he will not face the death penalty if convicted, which must count as a modest victory. Mr. Celil had earlier been sentenced to death in absentia.
Mr. Harper is right to insist that Canada's diplomats show the flag at Mr. Celil's trial, whether or not they are allowed inside the courtroom. A Canadian citizen has been caught up in a foreign justice system geared to repress dissent, with echoes of Maher Arar's incarceration in Syria, and if that isn't an important issue for our diplomats, what is?
The world is watching how China treats those who speak out for minority rights. It is assessing the fairness of China's legal system, as well as its willingness to live up to its international obligations. As Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympics, and is unusually sensitive to world opinion, Canada should not miss the chance to press for fair treatment for a Canadian citizen.