Consul's brief visit raises faint hope for jailed imam
Canadian in Uzbekistan still faces deportation

Big hurdles to save him from execution in China
Apr. 14, 2006. 01:00 AM

A Toronto-area Islamic religious leader whose arrest last month in Uzbekistan has caught the attention of international media and human rights groups is still languishing in a Tashkent prison, his wife said yesterday.

Huseyincan Celil, a Canadian citizen, has not yet been deported to China as feared, wife Kamila Celil said from Tashkent yesterday, after being briefed by the Canadian consular official. The imam faces a death sentence in China for his political activities on behalf of the minority Uighur population.

"They spoke for 20 minutes. After 20 days, they just allowed 20 minutes for the consul," a clearly distraught Kamila told the Toronto Star about what she believes was the first Canadian official to contact her husband.

Kamila said she was relieved to hear for the first time that her husband had not been sent to China, which is pressing for his return.

But she remains fearful her husband will be a political pawn between Uzbekistan and its powerful neighbour unless Canadian officials can intervene.

"I just want to get my husband out of here," she said. "I'm very sad and afraid for him."

Kamila said she still hasn't been allowed to speak to her husband. "They didn't give me access."

Moments later, the phone line went dead.

Kamila has been staying with relatives in Tashkent. Last week, their phone stopped making outgoing calls. Now it no longer takes incoming calls.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Kim Girtel confirmed that a consular official visited the detained Canadian, but said privacy concerns prevented her from giving details, despite pressing international concerns for his safety.

What will happen next is unclear, given the close relations between China and Uzbekistan.

Celil, a human rights activist, was once imprisoned in China for working on behalf of the Muslim Uighur community in China's northwest Xinjiang province. After escaping in 1998, he fled to Uzbekistan and later Turkey.

Celil and his family arrived in Canada as refugees in 2001, and settled in Hamilton before moving to Burlington last year.

Celil, who became a citizen last year, worried about the two sons and daughter he had to leave behind in China. So he went to Tashkent with his wife and three other children to try to reunite the family.

Uzbek police have not disclosed the charges against Celil, said Chris MacLeod, the family's lawyer in Canada.

Celil's name may have appeared on an Interpol arrest warrant, but an opposition MP worries that the imam is paying a heavy price for his political and religious beliefs.

"Where that arrest warrant is based on political dissidence, it's not the same thing as being convicted of a crime. It should not be respected," said Liberal MP Paul Szabo (Mississauga South), who raised the matter with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in the House of Commons.

Canada doesn't even have an official embassy in the country, said Michael Lynk, an assistant law professor at the University of Western Ontario. And Uzbekistan recently closed down the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there.

"I wouldn't want to be too discouraging, but the odds are considerable against him," Lynk said.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have asked Canadian officials to act quickly to secure Celil's release. His Canadian friends have launched a website to publicize his plight and to raise donations to hire a lawyer overseas.

And the Uyghur American Association has spoken with officials in the U.S. State Department to encourage their government to get involved, said the association's president, Nury Turkel.

Meanwhile, Kamila is trying to return to Canada "as soon as possible."

Five months pregnant and with three children younger than 7, "it's too hard" to travel alone, she said.

Canada has offered to issue her mother a temporary visa so that she can visit Canada, family friend Burhan Celik said from Ottawa.

But the mother needs an exit visa from Uzbekistan, and that hasn't come through, Celik said.