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Harper in China: Prime Minister urged to speak forcefully and publicly against human rights abuses in China

February 5, 2012

http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1125335 

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Stephen Harper should demand the release of 10 prisoners jailed in China and make human rights a “central focus” of his trip to Beijing, says a Canadian coalition of rights advocates.

“Canadian influence with China is growing and we no longer need to be meek,” said Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada.

China’s thirst for Canadian oil and natural resources gives Harper the clout to publicly and forcefully press human rights concerns when he travels to China amidst a crackdown on political dissent and Tibetan protests now taking place, the groups say.

“To soft-pedal or worse ignore these concerns risks sending a message that Canada is not concerned,” said Neve. “It is time to be confident and recognize that human rights can be put on the table without damaging trade.”

The Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China — an umbrella for 13 groups including the Canada Tibet Committee, the Canadian Labor Congress, the Uyghur Canadian Association, PEN Canada, and advocates for Falun Gong practitioners — released an open letter to Harper.

It lists 10 “prisoners of conscience” and includes Nobel prize-winner Liu Xiaobo, but also Huseyin Celil, arrested in 2006 while visiting relatives in Uzbekistan. A Muslim Uyghur activist, Celil had come to Canada as a refugee in 2001, and was travelling on a Canadian passport when he was arrested in 2006.

Handed off to Chinese authorities who accused him of being a terrorist, and separatist or “splittist,” Celil, whose wife and four children live in Burlington, was sentenced to life in prison.

It was Celil’s case that was in the spotlight when Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the now infamous comment in 2007 that he would not allow trade to trump human rights as he headed to an international summit that Chinese President Hu Jintao was to attend.

“I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide. We do that. But I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values of belief in democracy, freedom and human rights — they don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar,” Harper said at the time.

The comments set Canada-China relations on a frosty track which saw Harper skip the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. It wasn’t until late 2009 that Harper made his first official visit to China and relations warmed.

Cheuk Kwan, of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said the list of 10, also submitted to John Baird prior to his trip last fall to Beijing, is “only tip of the iceberg” but is emblematic of the thousands of political prisoners held in Chinese jails.

Kwan said the latest report he had was that Canadian consular officials had access in the past six months to Celil.

Kwan and Neve suggest now, with Hu Jintao stepping down later this year, the time is ripe for Harper to press Celil’s cause further and seek his immediate release. Further, the next rank of leaders need to “know that we mean business,” added Kwan.

Neve said it is not enough for Harper’s ministers, John Baird and Jason Kenney, to speak up and for Harper to remain silent, or only press his case behind closed doors.

“What we’re looking for in this visit isn’t a good cop, bad cop sort of performance, we’re looking for a human rights cop performance from all concerned and that absolutely has to include the prime minister,” he said. “In order for this message to be heard and understood at senior levels within the Chinese government it needs to come from the most senior level within the Canadian government.”

Urgyen Badheytsang, representing Students for a Free Tibet Canada, said Harper must make a public statement about human rights concerns, before and during the visit, because “the Chinese public also needs to know what’s going on inside Tibet.”

“If Harper is able to raise it in public it would have an immense impact on the Chinese public, not just on the Chinese leaders,” said Badheytsang.

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