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November 24, 2019

Learning from the Sharansky Affair

Reuel S. Amdur

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Natan Sharansky was refused an exit visa from the USSR in 1973. Hence, he was a refusenik. Four years later, because of his activities in conveying information about other refuseniks to the West, he was accused of high treason and spying for the U.S. His punishment, 13 years of forced labor. In 1986, he was released as part of a large spy swap between the West and the Communist bloc.

This release is noted here for two reasons.  First, there was an ongoing concerted effort to gain his release, with Jewish organizations playing a key role.  Second, the exchange overrode legalities.  Sentences were simply bypassed.

When former Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland addressed the issue of the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, she explained that the legal process on the American extradition request would need to be honored.  She was not prepared to yield to Chinese pressure, including the retaliatory arrest of two Canadians, cancellation of major agricultural trade deals, and imposition of the death penalty on Canadians convicted of drug crimes.

The East-West swap was a package deal.  The difference from the China-Canada standoff is that in the current dispute China acted in retaliation, while in the other situation there was no deliberate retaliation involved in the various arrests.  However, the principle may still apply.  Just make the package bigger.

Include in the package for Meng all of the above elements plus freedom for Huseyin Celil.  He is a Canadian citizen and an imam who served a Hamilton congregation.  Celil was taken into custody in 2006 while the family was visiting the wife’s relatives in Uzbekistan and was extradited to China.  He was wanted for his militancy on behalf of his Uyghur people and was convicted of terrorism. He has been incarcerated in China ever since.

Freeland chose to stick to legal niceties, but the current conflict can also be seen as an opportunity.  Put Celil’s freedom into the package and do a trade.  China obviously wants Meng back very badly.  Trump has even suggested that the United States might drop its extradition request for her if China made unspecified trade concessions.  If the U.S. were to do so, this would leave Canada with egg on our face, sticking to legalities at great economic expense and misery for incarcerated Canadians.  There is now a new Foreign Minister, François-Philippe Campagne.  Perhaps new eyes on the situation may result in a more auspicious outcome.

There is one element missing in the effort to free Imam Celil, the role of the Canadian Muslim establishment.  The loud and sustained voice of organized Judaism was instrumental in getting Sharansky’s freedom.  Why is organized Islam sitting on its hands?  Why have Muslims simply forgotten about one of their imams and allowed the Canadian government to do the same?

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