In one of Michael Kovrig’s letters, the former Canadian diplomat describes life in a Chinese prison as a “gray, grinding monotony.” Confined to a windowless concrete cell, ten feet square, his incarceration has also been, at times, deeply traumatic.
It’s taken all his strength not to crumble. COVID-19, his wife believes, may be pushing that resolve to its limits. Kovrig has been detained for 576 days with no end in sight, an apparent pawn in a geopolitical battle over Huawei Technologies Co. and the fate of its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. “The confinement and isolation that he was feeling has just been compounded by the pandemic and the complete cutting of visits and letters and the rest,” Vina Nadjibulla said in an interview in Toronto. “He has been stoic, but I know there are cracks.”
Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor were detained in China in December 2018, days after Canada arrested Meng at the request of U.S. authorities. Charged last month with espionage — accusations their associates say are ludicrous — the two men are being used as bargaining chips to try to win Meng’s freedom, many say, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The situation has Trudeau in a vise. In recent weeks he has faced pressure on a number of fronts, including from a group of former politicians and diplomats who say ending Meng’s extradition proceedings in Vancouver to effectively trade her for the two Michaels may be the only way to save the men. Trudeau has pushed back against such an exchange, arguing it would only endanger Canadians in China in the future.
Kovrig’s letters — though likely screened by Chinese officials — provide a glimpse of what his incarceration has been like, at least before the coronavirus hit. Written in the short periods in which he’s given access to paper and pen, they’re indicative of a man trying to make sense of suffering and find meaning in that experience. One ends with three “mantras” to close the month: “Become patience, embody stillness. Sanctum of serenity,” it reads. “Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been harmed.” To pass the time, Kovrig recites poetry and song lyrics — he’s a fan of Leonard Cohen — and during the hours he’s allowed to walk around his cell, tries to exercise: He can hold a plank position for 20 minutes, Nadjibulla says. He has been allowed limited access to books and now has cell mates, both enormous improvements compared to his first six months in detention, when he was held in solitary confinement and interrogated for many hours a day under lights that were never turned off.
“Trauma carved caverns of psychological pain through my mind,” he writes in one letter. Trying to fill those gaps with his love for Nadjibulla, and for life, is the “one faint silver lining to this Hell.” The contrast between Kovrig’s existence and that of Meng, the eldest daughter of Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s billionaire founder, is stark. Allowed to roam a 100-square-mile patch of greater Vancouver with monitors, Meng lives in a mansion and has said she passes her time oil painting and pursuing an online doctorate. She speaks every other day to her father, her husband has been by her side at every hearing, and she receives visits from her children, mother, and friends.
Nadjibulla says she doesn’t have a problem with Meng’s living arrangements. “I wouldn’t wish on her what Michael is going through,” she says. “She was arrested in Canada and has been able to take advantage of all the rule of law and protections available to her in this country. And to be honest, I’m actually happy that is the case.”
It’s hard to imagine a better champion for Kovrig than Nadjibulla. Although separated, the two have remained close friends, sharing a deep love built on years of marriage and a shared passion for public service, Nadjibulla says. They met at Columbia University in 2001 and both worked for the United Nations.
Nadjibulla studied Mandarin in Ottawa with Kovrig and says she is grateful that her education, experience and network of contacts equipped her for the mission of securing his freedom. “He’s said I’m indomitable. That if there’s anybody who can get him out, he knows I will.”
Still, it’s all-consuming work and the steady deterioration in Canada’s relationship with China, which ramped up this week when Canada canceled its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, has added stress, as has the global pandemic. Before it struck, Nadjibulla had been traveling to Ottawa at least twice a month, and to Washington, to press for his freedom.
Now she’s effectively grounded, pushing her cause by email and video chat. Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, hasn’t been permitted to visit Kovrig since Jan. 14 which means the letters have stopped. Nadjibulla and Kovrig’s family were allowed to speak to him by phone in March — the only call allowed since his arrest — but there’s been nothing since. They have no idea of his current condition, physical or mental.
And so Nadjibulla keeps pushing, recently speaking publicly about his plight for the first time and arguing for a different approach from Trudeau’s government to the Meng case. The case revolves around U.S. allegations that, as Huawei’s CFO, she conspired to defraud banks, including HSBC Holdings PLC, by tricking them into violating sanctions against Iran.
Past experience has shown that holding out against Chinese pressure has not kept Canadians any safer, Nadjibulla says. Nor would freeing Meng require circumventing Canada’s courts. A number of experts, including a former Supreme Court judge and Liberal justice minister, have said the government has the legal authority to end Meng’s extradition proceedings. While Trudeau has balked at a trade, there are other ways the situation could be resolved, Nadjibulla says. China could come to believe the current situation undermines its standing in the world and is not in its best interests. The U.S. could intervene more directly to help Canada get its people out or drop its handover request for Meng. Failing those, there is still a chance a Canadian judge could determine the extradition case doesn’t hold up.
The problem is time. Kovrig has been doing remarkably well — at least until communication was cut off — but everyone has limits. His letters provided a window into his state of mind, albeit with a delay of many weeks.
“Rest assured I remain resolute and resilient,” he wrote in a letter dated September 2019. “You must be relentless.”
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