China has announced trials for two men at the heart of a bitter feud with Canada, raising the stakes in the case ahead of a crucial meeting between top diplomats from Beijing and Washington.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig will face their first court hearings on Friday and Monday, respectively, Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said Wednesday in an emailed statement. Canadian officials have requested to attend. “We believe these detentions are arbitrary, and remain deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings,” Garneau said.
Kovrig was charged in June with spying on state secrets, while Spavor was accused of stealing and illegally providing state secrets to other countries. Those convicted of serious violations of the section of law cited by Chinese authorities face sentences of between 10 years and life in prison.
The trial — more than two years after their initial detention — comes ahead of the first face-to-face meeting between top diplomats from the U.S. and China in Alaska. The Canadians’ cases have been entwined with Washington’s efforts to extradite Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou — the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei — from Canada for prosecution in the U.S.
Kovrig and Spavor were detained by the Chinese government on national security allegations just days after Meng’s December 2018 arrest in Vancouver. China has often linked the cases to Meng’s, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian telling reporters that halting the extradition “could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians.”
Meng is back in a British Columbia courtroom this week contesting extradition in an Iran sanctions case.
“It’s a very important and worrisome development because that means that, once the trial has started, it will become very difficult to extricate them from China,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, by telephone. “The message to Washington is that, ‘If you want to help to get the Canadians back, you know what you have to do. You have to make sure that Ms. Meng comes back to China.’”
A Biden administration spokeswoman declined comment, referring only to President Joe Biden’s previous remarks. In February, after a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Biden called for the Canadians’ release, adding that “human beings are not bartering chips.”
“We’re going to work together until we get their safe return,” Biden said at the time.
Trudeau rejected calls for a prisoner-swap last year, saying “we cannot allow political pressures or random arrests of Canadian citizens to influence the functioning of our justice system.” In February, the cases led Canada to convene an international group opposing the use of arbitrary detention as a coercive diplomatic tool, an initiative denounced by China as “hypocritical and despicable.”
The trial dates come as tensions between Canada and China rise on a number of issues ranging from the political crackdown in Hong Kong to allegations of genocide against China’s Uyghur Muslim minority. Trudeau took office in 2015 hoping to seal in trade deal with the world’s second-largest economy.
Canadian public opinion against China has hardened, with more than three-quarters of Canadians saying relations can’t improve until Kovrig and Spavor are released, according to a poll from this week.
“They shouldn’t have been detained in the first place. They shouldn’t have to go on trial,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Alberta’s China Institute, said by phone. “The incidence of anybody who is charged being found not guilty is infinitesimal, especially in something … this high profile.”
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