OTTAWA – Federal leaders were united Wednesday in calling for the release of two Canadians detained by China after one was sentenced to 11 years in prison in a case that has put them — and Canada — at the centre of a bitter battle between China and the United States.
Despite the rare show of political unity and government promises to keep fighting for their release, it remained unclear exactly which cards Canada still has to play when it comes to freeing the prisoners who have become known as the “two Michaels:” Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
A Chinese court sentenced Spavor to 11 years in prison on Wednesday in a spying case that Canada says is linked to Beijing’s effort to secure the release an executive of tech giant Huawei, sparking condemnation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others.
“Today’s verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process, and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law,” Trudeau said in a statement.
“For Mr. Spavor, as well as for Michael Kovrig who has also been arbitrarily detained, our top priority remains securing their immediate release. We will continue working around the clock to bring them home as soon as possible.”
Spavor, an entrepreneur, and Kovrig, a former diplomat, have been detained by China since December 2018. That came days after Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver.
A British Columbia court is preparing to hear final arguments on whether Wanzhou should be extradited to the U.S., where she is wanted on allegations of having violated trade laws. China’s government has criticized the arrest as part of U.S. efforts to hamper its technology development.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said the Canadian government condemns “in the strongest possible terms” Spavor’s prison sentence, which followed a closed-door trial in March in which he was found guilty of spying on China.
“We know that the practice of arbitrary detention with a mock, sham trial with absolutely no transparency whatsoever, and a verdict that is completely unjustified are not acceptable in terms of international rules-based law,” Garneau said.
Beijing denies there is a connection between Meng’s case and the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig, but Chinese officials and state media frequently mention the two men in relation to whether or not Meng is allowed to return to China.
Spavor’s sentencing also follows a Chinese court’s decision on Tuesday to uphold the death penalty for another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, in a case that many observers have similarly linked to Meng’s detention.
Kovrig stood trial in March but there has been no word on when a verdict might be announced.
Asked whether Canada was negotiating over possibly sending Meng home in exchange for the release of Spavor and Kovrig, Canadian Ambassador to China Dominic Barton said, “There are intensive efforts and discussions. I don’t want to talk in any detail about that. But that will continue.”
Garneau also would not comment on whether there are discussions about an exchange, only saying that Canadian diplomats in China and the U.S. have put in “considerable and intense work” on the file.
“This work will continue to go on with the aim of arriving at the result of freeing the two Michaels,” Garneau said, adding U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated his administration is treating them as if they were American citizens detained by China.
Opposition politicians called on Canada and its allies to fight for the release of the two men, with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole describing Spavor’s sentencing as “completely unacceptable.”
“The Communist regime in China is using one of our citizens as a diplomatic ploy,” he said.
The developments in Spavor’s and Schellenberg’s cases are “heartbreaking,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
“We need to use all the tools that we have at the national level, working with allies, using diplomatic tools,” he said.
Spavor’s sentencing also prompted an unusual joint show of support for Canada by the United States and 24 other governments.
Diplomats from the United States, Japan, Britain, Australia, Germany and other European countries plus the European Union gathered at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in a show of support. They also have issued separate appeals for Spavor and Kovrig to receive fair trials or to be released.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for their immediate and unconditional release.
“The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable,” Blinken said in a statement.
“People should never be used as bargaining chips.”
European Council president Charles Michel wrote on Twitter that “arbitrary detentions have no place in international relations. The EU stands in full solidarity with Canada in condemning the sentencing of Mr. Spavor.”
The Chinese government has released few details other than to accuse Spavor of passing along sensitive information to Kovrig, a former diplomat, beginning in 2017.
Spavor worked in China but had extensive links with North Korea in tourism and other commercial ventures that brought him into contact with the isolated communist state’s leadership.
“Michael’s life passion has been to bring different cultures together through tourism and events shared between the Korean Peninsula and other countries including China and Canada,” his family said in a statement. “This situation has not dampened, but strengthened his passion.”
Barton said Chinese authorities cited photos taken by Spavor at airports that included military aircraft.
“A lot of it was around the photo evidence,” the ambassador said. “He obviously had a different view on that.”
Barton met with Spavor after the sentencing and said he sent three messages: “Thank you for all your support, it means a lot to me. Two, I am in good spirits. And three, I want to get home.”
“He’s strong, resilient, focused on what’s happening,” Barton said. “We had a very good conversation.”
Lee Berthiaume/The Canadian Press