More than 20 Western diplomats staged a public show of unity outside a Canadian’s high-profile spying trial on Monday, highlighting their shared concern about the risk of arbitrary detention in the country.
Representatives from the U.S., the U.K., the European Union and numerous European countries were turned away en masse while attempting to attend the trial of Michael Kovrig. The International Crisis group analyst and a former Canadian diplomat was accused of spying on state secrets.
"Michael Kovrig has been arbitrarily detained for more than two years now, precisely 833 days,” Jim Nickel, the charge d’affaires at the Canadian Embassy, told reporters outside the court. "This is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency in these court proceedings.”
Also present was William Klein, an official at the U.S. Embassy, who said the Washington stood "shoulder to shoulder” with Ottawa on the issue. The court cited national security as the reason for barring outside observers at the trial.
Kovrig’s hearing at the Beijing No. 2 People’s Intermediate Court comes days after a two-hour spying trial for another Canadian, Michael Spavor. China seized the pair in December 2018 after Canada detained Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou in response to a U.S. extradition request.
The U.S. is seeking the extradition of Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, to try her on fraud charges. China has linked the cases of the two men to Meng, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying last year that halting her extradition "could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians.”
The two trials were disclosed to Canadian diplomats just before to U.S. and Chinese diplomats met Thursday in Alaska for their first face-to-face meeting since President Joe Biden’s election. Biden has said be wants to work with "like-minded countries” to forge a common approach to Beijing.
Canada sought access to the hearings under the Vienna Convention for Consular Relations and a two-way consular agreement it signed with China, which guarantees access to court proceedings against each other’s citizens. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying rejected Canada’s "interference,” telling a regular briefing Monday in Beijing that Ottawa should respect the country’s "judicial sovereignty.”
Last month, Canada and 57 other governments signed a declaration against detaining each others’ citizens for geopolitical leverage, a move that was seen as aimed at nations like China and Iran. A spokesperson at China’s embassy in Ottawa said Beijing was unhappy with the campaign and that "ganging up” on countries was pointless.
Spavor, who organized trips to North Korea, was tried Friday in the northeastern city of Dandong on charges of stealing and illegally providing state secrets to other countries. No verdict was announced after his brief hearing. Individuals convicted of serious violations of parts of the law cited by Chinese authorities face 10 years to life in prison.
Outside the courthouse in Beijing, uniformed police checked the IDs of journalists, while men who appeared to be plainclothes police walked around the area. Street-sweeping machines were busy through the morning, keeping crowds of reporters from amassing in front of the court.
Canada has criticized China’s handling of the two men’s cases. Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said his country is "deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings.” On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the situation "completely unacceptable.”
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa disputed those comments, with an unnamed spokesperson saying in a statement posted on the embassy website: "This is just fact-distorting.”
"On the one hand, the Canadian side claims that it upholds the rule of law, but on the other hand, it makes irresponsible remarks with regards to China’s handling relevant cases in accordance with law,” the embassy said.
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