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UCA News
08-12-06, 09:34
Fighting for the rights of Uyghurs
Nobel Peace Prize nominee to raise the case of persecuted Muslim minority

Dec. 8, 2006. 06:21 AM


Rebiya Kadeer, once one of China's richest entrepreneurs, traded her privileged life in Xinjiang to live in exile near Washington, D.C., as the voice of the persecuted Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in China.

One of the cases worrying the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize nominee is that of Burlington imam Huseyincan Celil, now a political prisoner at an unspecified location in China.

This evening, Kadeer will meet with Celil's wife, Kamila Telendibaeva, and members of the GTA's tiny Uyghur community — 120 people in total — as part of a six-day visit to raise awareness of China's human rights abuses against her people.

A former member of China's National People's Congress, Kadeer is in Canada at the invitation of Conservative MP Jason Kenney (Calgary Southeast), chair of the government's international human rights subcommittee. She'll speak at Tuesday's parliamentary hearing on the human rights dialogue between Canada and China, which Ottawa is reviewing.

"We appreciate Prime Minister Stephen Harper's strong stand on human rights issues with China," Kadeer, 60, said from her office on Pennsylvania Ave., blocks from the White House.

"We believe that human rights issues should dominate trade talks. It is just wrong for any country to turn a blind eye on human rights abuses in China because of their trade relationships with that country," she said in Uyghur, through an interpreter.

Formerly known as East Turkistan, Xinjiang, or New Territory, was annexed by Communist China in 1949. Despite promising autonomy, China has forced assimilation on the Uyghurs by flooding the region with Chinese Han people. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have extensively documented other human rights violations.

Kadeer quit school in Grade 7 but showed a genius for entrepreneurship in a rapidly changing China, building a corporate empire in real estate, wholesale and restaurants through the 1980s and 1990s, gaining net assets of $32 million. She invested that, in part, in education and employment opportunities for local Uyghurs.

Connections helped get her elected to the government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1987 and promoted to China's National People's Congress five years later. But that came to an end in 1997, when she was charged with endangering national security by revealing state secrets to foreigners.

"My goal to join politics was to work within the system, to try to convince the leaders in Beijing to change their repressive policy against the Uyghurs. Not only did they not listen to our concerns, they called us thieves, hooligans and terrorists," noted Kadeer, who was elected president of the World Uyghur Congress in November, representing the 1 million Uyghurs now living in exile.

"They have given their (Uyghur) puppets nice houses, good lives and good titles as their agents to repress the Uyghurs," Kadeer says of the regime in Beijing. "But I wasn't a puppet."

Kadeer spoke out frequently against abuse of the Uyghurs, and was arrested in 1999 on her way to meet a U.S. Congress delegation in Urumqi.

Handed an eight-year sentence, she spent six years in prison in Urumqi, the first two in solitary confinement in a tiny cell without a window or a toilet, and she was allowed to shower only once every four months.

Under international pressure, she was transferred to Bajiahu prison, where she shared a cell with a murderer and fraud artist who reported on all her movements.

She was released last year on a medical parole to the United States, leaving behind six of her 11 children, as well as a suburban mansion, a Lincoln limo and a fleet of six other luxury vehicles.

Concerned about Celil's safety, Kadeer has been in close contact with his wife in Burlington.

China has accused Celil, 37, of being involved in a terrorist attack on a government delegation in Xinjiang in 2000 and of murdering an Uyghur in Kyrgyzstan, charges his family denies.

He was arrested in March in Uzbekistan while visiting his wife's family. In June, he was extradited to China, which doesn't recognize his dual citizenship.

Ottawa hasn't been able to confirm Celil's whereabouts or rumours that he has been sentenced to death.

"Mr. Celil's situation is of great concern to us," Foreign Affairs spokesman Bernard Nguyen said in a phone interview.

"Minister (Peter) MacKay has spoken on multiple occasions with the Chinese foreign minister regarding this case. We will continue to press the Chinese government."

Mohamed Tohti, of the Uyghur Canadian Association, said Kadeer's star status as a Nobel nominee will help the campaign to rescue Celil.

Although the Peace Prize was awarded in the end to Bangladeshi banker Muhammad Yunus, Kadeer said she wasn't at all disappointed.

"My nomination by itself is a recognition of the international community of the massive human rights violations against all Uyghur people," said Kadeer. "It has opened a lot of doors and opportunities for Uyghurs, so they know they are not alone in the world. And we want to give the same hope to (Celil's wife) Kamila that her husband will safely return."