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Dolkun Isa, left, president of the World Uyghur Congress, and Mehmet Tohti, government co-ordinator for the Uyghur Canadian Society, stand on Parliament Hill after meetings with Canadian officials, on April 3, 2019.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

Activists are asking Canada to take a tougher line on Beijing by imposing sanctions on officials in China’s Xinjiang region, where members of the country’s predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group have been placed in internment camps, and expedite the minority’s asylum cases.

Members of the World Uyghur Congress are in Ottawa this week meeting with parliamentarians and government officials to raise the plight of the minority group. They want the Trudeau government to escalate its public condemnation of China and co-ordinate an international response to the mass incarceration of Uyghurs, who face political indoctrination in Xinjiang camps.

The Uyghur group accused Canada of being afraid to publicly condemn China over fears of the consequences for two jailed Canadians in the country. Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman, were detained by Chinese authorities last December in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The arrest was in response to a U.S. extradition request on allegations of fraud relating to U.S. sanctions against Iran.

“There is some kind of fear … that we have in Canada because our relationship with China is not that rosy,” said Mehmet Tohti, the Canadian representative for the World Uyghur Congress, in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

“What we [Canada] are doing right now is exactly how the Chinese government wants us to act − in fear, without making any move, just totally taken hostage by the Chinese detention of these Canadians.”

Canada has raised concerns about China’s treatment of ethnic minorities through high-level meetings, a diplomatic letter and at the United Nations Human Rights Council, but most of those efforts took place before Ms. Meng’s arrest in December.

Asked about imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions against the Xinjiang leadership for alleged human-rights abuses, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did not say if Canada would do so. Rather, she pointed to the government’s moves on the matter, including a meeting she held with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, last September.

Canada’s Magnitsky law allows Ottawa to impose sanctions on human-right abusers. The legislation is named after the late Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was beaten to death by Moscow prison staff in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of theft.

“We are very aware of the situation with the Uyghurs. This is an issue which I have raised directly with my Chinese counterpart,” Ms. Freeland told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday. “It is something which we discuss very much with our allies and like-minded countries and it’s right for us to do so. The world does need to pay attention and Canada is.”

The U.S. State Department has estimated that more than one million members of minority groups, particularly Muslims, have been placed into indoctrination and training centres. Speaking recently to The Globe in Kazahkstan, former detainees recounted brutal treatment, political indoctrination, forced labour and surveillance of minorities in Xinjiang.

The World Uyghur Congress wants Canada to step up its public criticism of China and follow in the steps of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration by “mobilizing” allies to be more vocal against Beijing. It says Ottawa must intensify its pressure on China to immediately close internment camps and allow the UN into the Xinjiang region to investigative alleged human-rights abuses.

Canada raised the plight of minorities at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva three times last year. In a speech to the UN Human Rights Council last November, Tamara Mawhinney, Canada’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, called on Beijing to “release Uyghurs and other Muslims who have been detained arbitrarily and without due process for their ethnicity or religion.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed concerns about the treatment of the ethnic group during a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in November, shortly after Canada helped co-ordinate a diplomatic letter from 15 foreign ambassadors expressing concern about the matter.

Canada’s statements on the issue have subsided though, with the government only raising it once at the UN Human Rights Council since the detentions of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig. In March, Canada called on China to “release Uyghurs and other Muslims who have been arbitrarily detained on the basis of their religion or belief," according to Global Affairs Canada.

Mr. Tohti, of the World Uyghur Congress, is in Ottawa this week with Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress. Both men fled the Xinjiang region after speaking out about discrimination against Uyghurs in the late 1980s. They have never returned to their homeland, where both say many of their family members have disappeared − presumably forced into indoctrination camps.

Mr. Tohti now resides in Mississauga and is an active member of the small Uyghur-Canadian community; Mr. Isa settled in Munich, Germany, where he established the World Uyghur Congress.

The activists requested meetings with Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Freeland, but were instead offered meetings with three parliamentary secretaries and members of the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights.

They also met with officials from Global Affairs Canada and the Immigration Department. They are asking the Canadian government to expedite Uyghur asylum claims − especially those of the most vulnerable who have fled to Turkey – and pledge not to send Muslims from Xinjiang back to China.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office said parliamentary secretary Matt DeCourcey met with the activists Tuesday to hear their concerns directly, but did not indicate if Canada will expedite asylum cases for the minority group.

“We work closely with the United Nations Refugee Agency in the selection of refugees to be resettled in Canada, which ensures that cases are properly reviewed and that applicants are being resettled in the country that best suits their circumstances,” Mr. Hussen’s spokesperson Mat Genest said.

With reports from Nathan VanderKlippe

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