Huseyin Celil, a 38-year-old Chinese-born ethnic Uighur who fled to Canada in 2001 and then obtained Canadian citizenship in 2005, was sentenced on April 19 by a Chinese court to life imprisonment for the crimes of "separating China and ... organizing, leading and participating in terrorist groups [or] organizations."
Celil was first arrested in Uzbekistan and thence spirited to China, where he had been imprisoned for the past year before receiving his sentence.
Given that Celil has Canadian citizenship and in light of the Canadian government's awarding earlier this year of generous financial compensation to Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin who in 2002 was deported from the US to Syria, where he was allegedly tortured, Celil's family would perhaps be right to hope that Ottawa will do its utmost to come to his assistance. After all, although it came ex post facto and after years of denial, Canadian authorities did come clean on the Arar case, setting a precedent in the international campaign against terrorism which aside from the awarding of reparations worth approximately US$10 million to Arar and an admission of guilt on the role government agencies played in his deportation, forced the chief of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- Canada's equivalent of the FBI, loosely put -- to step down.
Sadly for Celil and precedent notwithstanding, he is unlikely to receive much help from Ottawa -- or the rest of the international community, for that matter. And the reason is simple: China.
It is one thing for Canada to reprimand Syria on human rights for the very real possibility that individuals in its prison system are being badly treated, if not tortured. In fact, by launching a commission of inquiry into the matter of Arar's deportation and later on admitting that he had been wronged, Ottawa had chosen to side with one of its citizens not only against Syria but the US as well, which to this day refuses to grant him a chance to make his case in a US court and will not remove him from its long list of terror suspects. There is real cause for hope when a country goes to this length to defend one of its own, especially in the context of the campaign against terrorism and the inherent pressure from the US upon states to participate in the effort.
But hapless Celil has a tremendous handicap: China's economy and the lure it has, siren-song-like, on other countries. Statistics from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada show that Canada's total trade with China last year was close to C$42 billion (US$37.3 billion), while two-way trade with Syria for the same period was approximately C$72 million. China's GDP was estimated at US$2.225 trillion in 2005. Syria's was US$25.84 billion.
Given these statistics, as former Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief James Mann points out in his book The China Fantasy, in recent years states have refrained from saying, let alone doing, anything "provocative" that is likely to "anger" Beijing, as doing so could have implications on trade. Given the size of the Chinese market and its vaunted potential for growth, Canada is not immune to this pressure and despite its envious, albeit imperfect, human rights track record, it, too, allows money to trump human rights. It is one thing to "anger" Damascus and put bilateral trade at risk; it is quite another when it comes to China.