A leader of the fight to secure freedom for a Canadian human-rights activist detained in China for 17 years is taking the latest diplomatic deep-freeze between Ottawa and Beijing in stride.
Wilf Ruland, a volunteer fieldworker with Amnesty International Canada, says a sustained, long-term campaign aims to keep Huseyin Celil's case in the public eye and in the minds of Canadian and Chinese authorities.
"Throughout the history of this case, there's been geopolitical ups and downs, but we figure our job is just to keep Canadian government officials' attention focused on the case and keep them working on it," Ruland said in an interview.
Celil, originally from China, fled the country in 2001 after being jailed for supporting the religious and political rights of the Uyghur minority.
Celil, his wife Kamila Telendibaeva and their son settled in Canada that year. They had two more boys and Celil became a Canadian in 2005. The following year, the family went to Uzbekistan to visit Telendibaeva's family while she was expecting a fourth child.
According to Amnesty International, the police in China discovered Celil was in Uzbekistan and asked the Uzbek police to arrest him. He was sent to China, where authorities accused him of offences related to his support of Uyghur rights.
"He was not given access to a lawyer, his family or Canadian officials. The Chinese authorities threatened and tortured him and forced him to sign a confession," Amnesty says.
"They refused to recognize Huseyin’s status as a Canadian citizen, and they did not allow Canadian officials to attend his trial. The trial was not conducted fairly, and he was sentenced to life in prison in China, where he remains today."
The Canadian government has expressed concern about the repression of Uyghurs and other minorities by Chinese authorities on the basis of their religion and ethnicity, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.
Until at least late 2016, Celil was being held in Xinjiang Number One Prison in Urumqi, capital of China's Xinjiang region, Ruland said.
His mother and sister, who live in China, would occasionally make a train journey to visit him and then relay word to his wife in Burlington, Ont., Ruland said. But she has not heard anything since late 2016.
In September 2021, Telendibaeva said while she was happy to see high-profile Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig freed from Chinese jails, she was frustrated that Ottawa could not also liberate her husband.
A recent petition from concerned Canadians, presented to the House of Commons by Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, called on Ottawa to appoint a special envoy to work on securing Celil's release. It also urged the government to seek the assistance of the United States and other allies toward that goal.
In a statement, the government said it continues to be deeply concerned with his detention.
"Canada has repeatedly raised Mr. Celil's case with the government of China at the highest levels, and will continue to do so," the response said.
"While privacy considerations prevent the sharing of details, the government of Canada remains actively engaged in his case."
Ottawa said it would also continue to seek access to Celil to "verify his well-being."
Accusations of interference by China in Canadian political affairs have further tested already strained relations between the countries, prompting diplomatic expulsions by both sides.
Ruland said diplomatic friction is beyond Amnesty's control, adding that the resolution of Celil's case could even be a bridge to re-establishing a better rapport with China.
Ruland, who recently began a campaign to petition the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa with postcards on behalf of Celil, said public support and attention are crucial.
"It's the lifeblood of Amnesty International's work," he said. "It's the public support that makes all the difference in getting governments to act."