OTTAWA — Even through the grainy,
often-undecipherable audio of a secretly recorded prison conversation, the sound
of uncontrollable weeping is clear.
For the first time since his arrest nearly three years
ago, Huseyin Celil's voice has resonated beyond the walls of his prison. Mr.
Celil – a Canadian citizen who is serving a life sentence on terrorism charges
in China – was allowed to meet with his mother and sisters in a remote northwest
China prison last week. The conversation was secretly recorded using a
cellphone, and a copy of that recording has been obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The Globe has also learned that Canadian consular
officials travelled to northwest China to meet with Mr. Celil's family before
and after the family met him (Canadian consular officials have never been
allowed to meet Mr. Celil personally), and the Canadian officials were provided
with a copy of the recording.
Mr. Celil, 39, is an ethnic Uyghur – a Muslim minority
group that resides primarily in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China.
Human-rights groups complain that Beijing has clamped down on Uyghur rights,
especially since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, using the war on terror as a
Mr. Celil and his wife fled to Canada and received
Canadian citizenship in November of 2005. Mr. Celil was arrested in Uzbekistan
and handed over to China in the summer of 2006. He was travelling on a Canadian
passport at the time. China accused him of terrorism and sentenced him to life
in prison. Chinese officials have never recognized his Canadian citizenship.
It is difficult to make out much of the half-hour
conversation, which was recorded secretly through layers of clothing as about
half a dozen Chinese prison guards watched. The first three minutes of the
recording, however, are dominated by the sound of Mr. Celil's mother and sister
Uyghur translators are also able to make out a few words
and phrases, including a point where Mr. Celil's sister says “May the Almighty
make it easier,” and times when Mr. Celil uses the Uyghur words for “sunlight,”
“darkness” and “my children.”
“Mr. Celil has said that his health has been
deteriorated badly and he needed to see a doctor, but he has not been allowed so
far,” said Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur activist and member of the Uyghur Canadian
Association. “It is obvious that staying in solitary confinement, without any
exposure to the sun and served only one meal with no nutritional value made him
In another portion of the recording, Mr. Tohti says Mr.
Celil can faintly be heard using the Uyghur words for “my country” – a
reference, his family says, to Canada.
According to Mr. Tohti, who spoke with Mr. Celil's
family after the meeting last week, Canadian consular officials travelled to
Urumqi in northwest China, the location of Mr. Celil's prison. Mr. Tohti said
the officials met with Mr. Celil's family twice, and in the second meeting were
provided a copy of the audio recording.
A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman in Ottawa did not respond
to requests to confirm that officials had received a copy of the recording.
Mr. Celil, who has no contact with the outside world
beyond these infrequent meetings with his family, has repeatedly asked why
Canada has not come to his aid.
After his arrest, the Harper government pushed hard on
his behalf, with top government officials stating publicly that they had seen no
evidence to support the charges against the Canadian (Mr. Celil has always
denied the charges against him).
But Chinese officials have made it clear that they
consider the matter closed, and officials in Ottawa say privately that efforts
on Mr. Celil's behalf have been ramped down, in part for fear that pushing the
issue could hurt other aspects of Ottawa's relationship with Beijing.
Activists in Canada had hoped to focus attention to Mr.
Celil's plight in the lead-up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, but those
efforts yielded few results.
The audio recording marks only the second time since his
arrest that Mr. Celil's own words have been made public. In May, The Globe
obtained a copy of a letter he wrote to his family from prison. In the letter,
he asks his wife to tell Canadian officials his story, and apologizes to his
mother for the suffering his imprisonment has caused her.