MPs, senators to push for release of imprisoned Canadians during trip to China

MPs, senators to push for release of imprisoned Canadians during trip to China

OTTAWA — A group of Canadian lawmakers travelling to China this weekend will use the trip to push for the release of two Canadians detained there since last month, says a Conservative MP in the delegation.

That is something all Canadian travellers to China ought to be doing, says the boss of one of the imprisoned Canadians.

Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on a leave from Global Affairs Canada and employed in Beijing by the International Crisis Group, and the entrepreneur Michael Spavor were arrested last month in China. The arrests are widely viewed as Chinese retaliation for Canada’s arrest of high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, by the RCMP in Vancouver at the request of the United States.

“People who do go to China, I’m hoping they will raise this with their interlocutors to make clear that it is hurting China’s image in the world, and it’s going to make it harder for some people who want to travel to China,” Robert Malley, the Crisis Group’s president and a former member of the U.S. national security council under president Barack Obama, said in an interview Thursday.

That’s exactly what the members of the Canada-China Legislative Association say they will do when they arrive in China on Saturday, said Conservative MP Michael Cooper.

“I and the other members of the delegation will engage with Chinese officials in as constructive way as possible, with the obvious objective of seeing these two Canadians returned safely and as soon as possible,” Cooper said.

The Edmonton-area MP is joining three Liberal MPs, a Liberal senator and Conservative senator on the previously scheduled trip that is being funded by Canadian taxpayers.

Cooper acknowledged there was discussion about whether the trip would go ahead given the current tensions, until the leader of the delegation, Liberal Sen. Joseph Day, was briefed by the Canadian foreign ministry.

“The message from Global Affairs Canada … was that it would be better for us to go rather than to cancel,” said Cooper. “Quite frankly, if there were safety issues or if it was deemed to not be beneficial, then we wouldn’t be going.”

The U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory on China on Thursday, urging Americans travellers to exercise “increased caution” because of ”arbitrary enforcement of local laws as well as special restrictions on dual U.S.-Chinese nationals.”

Adam Austen, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, said parliamentary delegations are independent and can make their own travel decisions, adding the department provided a pre-trip briefing to the participants.

He reiterated Canada’s call for the release of the two men.

“We are deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of two Canadians last month and call for their immediate release,” said Austen.

Kovrig and Spavor are among 13 Canadians who have been detained in China since Meng’s arrest on Dec. 1, eight of whom have since been released. They are among the 200 Canadians detained in China for a variety of alleged infractions and who still face legal proceedings, said a Canadian government official speaking on background.

That number has been stable in recent year and compares to the 900 Canadians detained in the United States for similar reasons, the official said.

Earlier Thursday, a Chinese government spokesman said it was not “convenient” to discuss the allegations against Kovrig and Spavor despite an assertion by the country’s top prosecutor that they broke the law.

“We have said here that these two Canadian citizens are under investigation in accordance with law for engaging in activities that undermine China’s national security,” said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang. “It is not convenient to disclose more information now.”

Lu’s briefing, posted in English translation to the ministry’s website, was one of two cryptic Chinese government media events that deepened the mystery surrounding the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor.

China’s chief prosecutor, Zhang Jun, told a separate briefing Thursday that “without a doubt” Kovrig and Spavor broke the country’s laws and are being investigated.

“This doesn’t shed much light,” said Malley.

“He is living in a very uncertain world — not clear what the charges are, not clear if they are formal charges, not clear what the process will be — and that’s sort of what Michael has lived through now for the past three weeks.”

The U.S. wants Meng to face fraud charges. She has been released on bail and is living in an upscale Vancouver home in advance of her extradition hearing.

Little is known about Kovrig’s or Spavor’s circumstances because they’ve each had only a single consular visit by Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, last month.

“To have no news, no contact, no sense of how long this is going to last, no interaction with Chinese authorities, that’s really living in the dark in a way I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” said Malley.

Malley said he won’t speculate on why Kovrig was detained, only to say it has nothing to do with his work as an analyst for the Crisis Group.

Canada has sought the support of key allies in pressuring China to release Kovrig and Spavor.

The U.S State Department has called for the release of the two Canadians, while Germany, France, the European Union and Australia have also issued supportive statements.

The united message, being delivered publicly and privately to China, is that the continued detentions are harmful to China because they will discourage businesspeople, academics and others from travelling to the country, said Malley.

“It’s not advancing any purpose other than the purpose of further raising doubts about China’s reliability as a country that’s going to follow the rule of law.”

Mike Blanchfield and Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press

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