One year after arrests, Canadians held in China set to face trial

OTTAWA — As two imprisoned Canadians face trials in Chinese courts where convictions are virtually assured, MPs prepared Tuesday to press ahead with a parliamentary review of the Liberals’ policies toward China.

Neither Michael Spavor nor Michael Kovrig has seen a lawyer or family in the year since they were each detained in what is widely seen as retribution for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the United States.

The two men have met monthly with consular officials from Canada, which calls their detentions arbitrary.

Throughout the day on Tuesday — the first anniversary of the detentions — Liberal cabinet ministers spoke about the priority the government has placed on securing their freedom.

“They are, and will remain, our absolute priority. We will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians,” International Development Minister Karina Gould said during the afternoon question period.

Those efforts were thrown further in doubt when a Chinese foreign-ministry spokeswoman told reporters in Beijing that Spavor’s and Kovrig’s cases have been sent “for investigation and prosecution” on national-security allegations.

“China’s judicial authorities handle cases in strict accordance with law and protect the two Canadian citizens’ lawful rights,” Hua Chunying said, according to an English transcript posted on the ministry’s website.

She said the two men “are in sound condition,” but demurred on two questions about their access to lawyers.

Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, is employed by the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization. Spavor is an entrepreneur who specialized in business in North Korea.

In the year since Canada arrested Meng at Vancouver’s airport on Dec. 1, 2018 and China retaliated by detaining Kovrig and Spavor, relations between the two countries have soured. Aside from the arrests, China has also restricted imports of some agricultural products, including canola.

The United States wants Meng extradited to face fraud charges for allegedly lying to U.S. banks in the course of violating sanctions against Iran. She remains on bail and living in a luxury Vancouver home, as her extradition hearing remains before a British Columbia court.

The International Crisis Group called Kovrig “an innocent pawn of great-power politics,” in a post marking the anniversary of his detention, adding: “His long detention is unjust and unfairly oppressive.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the anniversary shows the Liberals are unable to handle the China file. He called the situation a diplomatic crisis.

“The government of China is illegally detaining two Canadian citizens. They have blocked billions of dollars in agricultural exports. They are now starting to take aggressive actions in the Arctic, calling for a ‘Polar Silk Road,’ ” he said.

(In January 2018, China’s government released a paper examining prospects for Chinese-controlled infrastructure and trade routes in the Arctic.)

Conservatives spent the day in the House of Commons focusing on the Canada-China relationship, trying to get support for a special committee of MPs to probe all aspects of the diplomatic feud, and potentially call Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair as witnesses.

Gould suggested the government wouldn’t support the motion. There are existing committees that could look at issues about the Canada-China relationship, she said during question period, “and we look forward to seeing how the committees decide to manage their own business.”

With the Liberals leading a minority government, there are enough opposition votes to push through the proposal if the Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois agree.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2019.

The Canadian Press

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