Diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 Olympics could bring Huseyin Celil home

As the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games approach, the fate of Canadian Huseyin Celil must be a clear priority for our nation and our government.

In 2000, Celil escaped from his illegal imprisonment in the People’s Republic of China where he was being held as punishment for his activism on political and religious rights of Uyghurs. He then followed international protocols, obtaining United Nations refugee status in 2001, then Canadian citizenship shortly thereafter.

In 2006, while visiting his family in Uzbekistan, Celil was captured and repatriated to China. There he was denied access to appropriate legal representation and sentenced to life imprisonment on false accusations of terrorism, despite a flagrant lack of evidence.

Although Celil’s sentence has been reduced, he has still languished in a Chinese prison for fifteen years. Celil’s wife, Kamila, and her four children are without a husband or father for over a decade. It’s time to go all out and make every effort to bring Celil home.

In a recent interview with Global NewsKamila was optimistic about her husband’s future. “I was really happy when the two Michael’s landed in Canada… I’m very positive about Huseyin’s case now. I am very positive. Can’t wait to take it home.

The recent release of two Michael – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – was obtained by the United States government through what appeared to be a matching deal to free Huwawei executive Meng Wanzhou on charges of financial fraud. Canada played a central role in Meng’s detention, which resulted in the Michael’s retaliation, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment in China.

The fact that Meng’s release immediately resulted in the Michael’s freedom speaks volumes about China’s view on diplomacy. It is a transactional process. We give them something, they give us something.

For the Canadian government, diplomatic participation in the Beijing 2022 Olympics is worth putting on the table in exchange for Celil’s release. A new counterpart. Release Celil and Canada will send its diplomats to the Olympics.

The Olympic Games and the refugees

It’s easy to get carried away by the euphoria of the Olympics. A festival with deep nationalist meanings for governments, it attracts the attention of the media and with it millions of people. We are told to support the athletes and, through their medals and records, celebrate Canadian excellence.

But it’s hard to revel in the Olympic spectacle of peaceful internationalism and global friendship from a prison cell.

Canada has already followed the Olympic line for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, obviously adhering to claims that the event would improve the human rights landscape in China.

Members of the Beijing Olympic City bid team celebrate their winning bid for the 2008 Olympics, after hearing the results in Moscow in July 2001.
CP PHOTO / Fred Chartrand

Since 2008, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refugees kissed as part of the Olympic family. From 2016, refugees with UN status could apply to compete on a separate Olympic team. If Celil were an athlete, he would meet the criteria. Sadly, the IOC’s decision to recognize refugee athlete status at the United Nations came shortly after they had already granted Beijing hosting rights for 2022, sending the Games to a country where refugee status means virtually nothing.

China regularly uses its economic and martial power to coerce other nations to help repatriate refugees from the country. As lawyer Lili Song shows in-depth analysis of China and refugees, the Chinese Communist Party has successfully put pressure on many other countries, including Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Albania, to assist in the capture and repatriation of Chinese nationals .

China also refuses to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to access and support the thousands of ethnic Kokangs and Kachins fleeing to China from Myanmar, and the hundreds of North Koreans cross China’s northeast border.

Diplomatic boycott could bring Cellil home

The IOC has a team of refugees. The IOC also has a long-standing relationship with the UN. Yet China openly flouts UN Refugee Protocols. This is a perfect opportunity for the Canadian government to highlight the failures of the IOC, the UN and China and to support Celil’s human rights and fundamental freedoms. Put pressure on all three.

How? ‘Or’ What? The threat of a firm and unwavering diplomatic boycott of the Games. Lawyer Chris McLeod, who represents Celil agrees – he told me:

“There may never be another opportunity like this. The Canadian government can show its support for Huseyin by a diplomatic boycott of these Games. Whenever a Canadian athlete competes, Celil’s struggle will be featured in national and international media. It is no small pressure and China is very attentive to its international reputation. They don’t want the Games to be a platform to ridicule their human rights record.

A woman wearing a hijab is pictured shoulders up, looking into the distance
Kamila Talendibaeva, wife of Huseyin Celil, hopes that her husband can return home after the release of the two Michael.
CP PHOTO / Fred Chartrand

As an academic, I am alongside the family of McLeod and Celil. I fully and wholeheartedly support a diplomatic boycott as part of a larger effort to secure Celil’s freedom, but a few voices will not be enough. Politicians must speak out.

Olympians and Paralympians can raise voices for Celil’s family and supporters by calling for his release over the next four months before the start of the 2022 Olympics. Academics, journalists and activists should join in the solidarity.

We have to be so strong that the Canadian government cannot help but listen. The Trudeau government, the IOC and the UN speak of a great human rights game, undeniably linking the Olympics to global peace efforts. Hold them accountable and demand action.

If there is no freedom for Huseyin Celil, Canadian diplomats must stay at home. Complete stop.

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