A case of federal ignorance?
Burlington man sits in Chinese jail on spurious premise that he's a terrorist because he's Muslim

Last week I questioned why Canada should be especially concerned about a citizen, Huseyin Celil, being deported from Uzbekistan to China, where he was sentenced to death in absentia for alleged "terrorist" activities.

Celil is Uighur (it's spelled various ways) who escaped to Mongolia from a Chinese prison and was accepted by Canada as a refugee and settled in Burlington, where he became an imam at a local mosque.

I wrote that Celil should have known better than to visit Uzbekistan, where many Uighurs (pronounced "wee-gurs") live and whose government is barely democratic and vulnerable to China's tentacles.

Where I erred was not clarifying that Celil, although a Muslim, was more concerned with the political repression of Uighurs, who, in a way, endure the sort of cultural genocide that Beijing inflicts on Tibet.

Mohamed Tohti is president of the Uighur Canadian Association. He escaped from China through Mongolia in 1992, and insists that Celil's concerns are more political than religious.

"The Uighurs are the most pro-Western of all Muslims," he says. "That's part of why the Chinese government is so hostile to us. Because most Uighurs are Muslim, China calls all Uighurs terrorists. We are anything but. We are secular and peaceful people."

Celil came to Canada in 2001. According to Mr. Tohti, he contacted the Chinese consulate last fall to inquire how he could get rid of all connections with China: As a new Canadian, he wanted no ties to China.

China doesn't recognize dual citizenship, and when it suits its purpose, it considers anyone born in China one of theirs -- as with Celil.

What bothers Tohti is that despite consular agreements with China, Canada has no diplomatic access to Celil. No charges have been stated; no one knows where he is. Throughout, the Canadian government has been less than vigorous on his behalf.

Ironically, the fuss over the extradition of Celil from Uzbekistan to China (Canada showed no concern at the time) has brought the issue of Uighurs to public attention.

Most people have never heard of Uighurs (there are roughly 2,000 in North America). Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uighur American Association, feels by visiting his wife's parents in Uzbekistan, Celil's "only mistake was that he didn't know that China could disregard all international laws when it came to hunting down and punishing Uighur dissidents who have peacefully voiced their opposition to the half-century long repressive Chinese rule."

Prior to 1955, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwest China was formally known as East Turkestan.

What upsets Mohamed Tohti is the impression that Uighurs might somehow be terrorists linked with al-Qaida. He points out that their region is virtually isolated from the rest of the world -- China's largest, most remote province, bordered north to south by Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet. That's as about as remote as you can get.

"Foreign journalists are banned from visiting the region," says Tohti. "Beijing authorizes only 150 passports a year for Uighurs. They are captives in isolation."

Several thousand Uighurs in Chinese prison have been designated "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International.

Tohti says he's been trying for 16 years, to no avail, to get a passport for his mother to visit him.

"Because we are mostly Muslims (maybe 47% of the 20 million population of Xinjiang), China calls us terrorists, even though we admire and side with the West more than most Muslim countries."

Uighurs are the largest of 46 ethnic groups in Xinjiang, "and as Muslims Uighurs live harmoniously with Buddhists, Christians and atheistic Chinese."

Tohti wishes Ottawa was more understanding of Celil, whom he feels reflects values that make him an exemplary Canadian citizen -- if he ever is returned to Canada.