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The Uyghur pawn

Beijing's dictatorship sentences a Canadian to life in prison without evidence to support their charges. The question remains, why?

Kevin Steel - May 21, 2007

According to Tohti, when Celil became a Canadian citizen in 2005, he contacted the Chinese consul general's office in Toronto to find out if there were any formalities he had to undertake to cut all ties with China. The officials there apparently informed him of Chinese law negating his Chinese citizenship. Tohti thinks this was a mistake on Celil's part because that may have been the moment he appeared on the Communist party's radar.

China's human rights abuses against the Turkistan have been widely publicized and internationally condemned, but the plight of the Uyghurs in East Turkistan has largely gone unnoticed. The Uyghurs are not ethnically Chinese. They are a Muslim, mainly Sufi, Turkic-language minority of about 10 million. For years, the Communists treated them as subhuman, denying them basic human rights and treating the region as a buffer-zone wasteland between China and the Soviet Union, a place where they would conduct multiple above-ground nuclear tests without any regard for the population.

Then, as China began to develop and became more energy dependent, it turned out that East Turkistan was oil rich. It also borders with Kazakhstan, which has large oil deposits as well. (Any pipeline from Kazakhstan to China--and the Chinese have been inking oil deals with Kazakhstan--will traverse East Turkistan.) To say that this occupied territory is strategically important to China is an understatement; it is rapidly becoming the heart for the lifeblood of China's rapidly expanding economy. But Beijing has a problem with this heartland: namely, their long and ongoing conflict with the people who live there.

Throughout their occupation, ethnic Chinese, particularly Han Chinese, have been sent to live in the region to replace and rule over the Uyghurs. In 1997, riots started breaking out in response. These were ruthlessly suppressed by the ruling Communists and were quickly followed by mass executions and a clampdown on religious practice. By 1998, the Chinese began what they called "patriotic education" of the Uyghurs.

Enter, or rather exit, Huseyin Celil. He escaped East Turkistan in 1999. (Canadian newspapers keep repeating that he escaped from prison, but Kamila Telendibayeva, Celil's wife, says this simply isn't true; he escaped from East Turkistan without a passport, not from prison.) He managed to get to Turkey, and in May 1999 applied at a United Nations office for refugee status. After two years, in October 2001, he was accepted into Canada as a refugee and eventually settled in Burlington, Ont.

The timeline belies the transparent nonsense of China's case against Celil. For the first six months of his detention, Beijing said Celil was being detained in relation to two terrorist events: a kidnapping in March 2000, and an assassination of a Chinese diplomat in 2002, both in Kyrgyzstan. But it is well documented that he was living under the protection of the UN in Turkey in 2000, and then in Canada in 2002. Neither event was mentioned at Celil's trial. Still, he was convicted of a terror charge and sentenced.

Anwar Yusuf Turani is the prime minister of the East Turkistan government-in-exile based in Washington, D.C. He says he isn't surprised by what China has done. "They've been doing it for a long time, arresting people in East Turkistan, labelling them separatists or religious extremists or terrorists. China is very good at labelling people without any proof," Turani says.

Celil's plight illustrates how Beijing has used the war on terror to justify continued oppression of the Uyghurs. As lawyer Chris MacLeod points out, the Chinese alleged that Celil gave money to Hizb'allah while he was in East Turkistan. "They didn't say where he got this money or who he gave it to, but Hizb'allah is a name recognized in the West," MacLeod says, implying the Chinese are just throwing around disinformation to justify what they've done. In 2002, the U.S. government put an organization known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement on its Treasury Department terrorism watch list, as did the UN, despite the fact that not much is really known about the group. It was largely viewed as a concession to China for their support in the international war on terror. This allows them to pretend to be on the right side. At an April 26 press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said, "We believe the case is China's internal affair and in essence relates to anti-terrorism. It has no connection with Canada. We hope the Canadian side will not interfere with China's internal affairs under this pretext."

More articles by Kevin Steel