Michael Kovrig, one of two Canadians who has been in Chinese detention since December, 2018, remains unbroken in spirit despite the extreme isolation he has experienced, his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, says after his first consular visit in nine months.
Dominic Barton, ambassador to China, met over the internet with businessman Michael Spavor on Friday and Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat, on Saturday. It was the first contact that Canadian diplomats have had with the two men since in-person visits in mid-January.
“Michael was greatly relieved to receive news from the outside world … [and] astonished to learn about the details of the COVID-19 pandemic, and remarked that it all sounded like some ‘zombie apocalypse movie,’ ” Mr. Kovrig’s family said in a statement released Sunday.
Hearing Mr. Kovrig’s dry wit was a reassurance to the family, Ms. Nadjibulla said later in an interview.
“I was relieved that his sense of humour seems intact,” she said. “And to me, that’s the greatest indication that his spirit is unbroken. That he is still okay.”
The detention of the two men has been widely seen as an act of hostage diplomacy after the Canadian arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request.
It took almost 600 days after their arrests before Chinese authorities formally charged the two Canadians with espionage – a crime punishable by life in prison. Mr. Kovrig, who was working as senior adviser for northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, was charged with spying on national secrets and intelligence for entities outside China.
Mr. Spavor, a businessman who helped arrange travel to North Korea, was charged with spying on national secrets and illegally providing state secrets to entities outside China.
Global Affairs Canada said on the weekend that, “The Canadian government remains deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of these two Canadians since December, 2018 and continues to call for their immediate release.”
In a phone call on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked President Donald Trump for the United States’ support in “seeking the immediate release of the two Canadian citizens arbitrarily detained by China,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a readout statement of the call.
Until Friday, Chinese authorities had denied diplomatic access to the Canadian men since January, citing pandemic rules that it has applied across the country’s detention system.
But life in China has largely returned to normal for months now. Large gatherings are routine and even masks are no longer required for many activities in Beijing, where Mr. Kovrig is being held.
Now, China can no longer credibly use the pandemic as an excuse to continue keeping Canadian diplomats from visiting Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, the Conservative foreign-affairs critic says. MP Michael Chong also says this past week’s virtual consular visits should have happened much sooner.
“COVID-19 is an excuse that doesn’t hold water,” Mr. Chong said in an interview Sunday. “The economy in China has largely reopened,” he added. “A direct in-person visit should have already taken place a long time ago with appropriate social distancing.”
Mr. Kovrig was granted a short telephone call with his father in March, but has otherwise been kept isolated from world events. He has no access to television or radio, only books sent by family and movies chosen by the authorities incarcerating him.
“Michael is a type of person who wants to know what’s happening. He used to live a life of extreme connectivity as a diplomat and then as an analyst. So to be completely isolated and cut off from the world is extremely difficult for him,” Ms. Nadjibulla said. “These consular visits are really his only window into what’s been happening in the world for the last two years.”
Mr. Kovrig’s family continues to send him letters, but have not received one in return since June, Ms. Nadjibulla said. Family members cannot join consular visits, but Mr. Barton on Saturday conveyed messages, she said.
“We’ve traditionally used these consular visits to reassure him that we are working as hard as we can. That we are building the base of support for him. That he is not forgotten. That Canadians and others around the world care about him,” she said. They also wanted to reassure him “that we’re all healthy, because the last thing we need him to do is to worry about our health and how we’re doing in the pandemic.”
Authorities provided Mr. Kovrig with special meals on Christmas Eve, Christmas and Chinese New Year – pizza, KFC drumsticks and dumplings – but it’s unclear if he will be provided anything to mark Canadian Thanksgiving on Monday, a holiday that attracts little attention in China.
Tuesday, meanwhile, marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canada and China. “I hope every opportunity is used to highlight the situation that Michael and Michael Spavor are facing,” Ms. Nadjibulla said. The two men have now been detained for more than 22 months. Ms. Nadjibulla expressed gratitude for efforts by the Canadian government to secure their release. But “it’s a message of urgency and redoubling our efforts,” she said.
Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were both arrested Dec. 10, 2018, just days after the arrest in Vancouver of the Huawei executive. China has called the case against Ms. Meng a political prosecution and has repeatedly demanded her release from Canada, where she has been out on bail and living in her two multimillion-dollar Vancouver homes.
Mr. Spavor’s family has declined interview requests.
Mr. Kovrig passes his days reading, doing “body-weight exercises in his cell and maintaining as positive a mindset and attitude as he can,” Ms. Nadjibulla said. “He is still staying strong, body and mind, from what we can tell.”
With reports from The Canadian Press and Reuters
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