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A Canadian judge has invoked courtroom delays to quash charges against a former Agriculture Canada crop scientist who was accused of secretly receiving payments from a Chinese university.

Yantai Gan, 67, was arrested in November, 2019, and charged with fraud, possession of stolen property, and breach of trust by a public official. His trial was expected to take place this spring.

The Crown’s core allegation was that Dr. Gan broke the law by accepting payments from a Chinese university and did not disclose this to Agriculture Canada.

While this type of prosecution is rare in Canada, American prosecutors have successfully pursued dozens of similar cases over the past two decades as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s China initiative. That policy’s stated aim is to safeguard U.S. trade secrets and national security by curbing the influence that can be exercised on American researchers by corporate or academic entities within the People’s Republic of China.

The Canadian charges against Dr. Gan were stayed after a judge faulted Crown lawyers for exceeding strict timelines for trials set by a 2016 Supreme Court ruling known as Jordan. The ruling gives prosecutors a 30-month window to push serious criminal charges through superior courts. Hundreds of criminal cases in Canada have been tossed for reasons of delay in recent years.

“You run up against the wall or go past it – you’re done,” Wade McBride, the Crown lawyer on Dr. Gan’s case for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, said in an interview.

Mr. McBride said the prosecution against Dr. Gan fell apart during a Jan. 12 hearing at Saskatchewan’s Court of King’s Bench in Swift Current.

He said Justice Timothy Keene stayed the case in ruling that the Crown was shooting past the allowable timespans by seeking too much leeway for pandemic-induced delays.

“I thought that we were going to be okay based upon what I thought were the delays from COVID and the ripple effect,” Mr. McBride said. But Justice Keene “finished doing his calculations and he was at 30 months and two weeks.” It was the additional 14 days that made the prosecution unlawful.

News of the stayed charges was first reported by The Western Producer. The Public Prosecution Service of Canada did not announce the collapse of the case when it happened in January. “We don’t issue news releases when there’s a stay,” spokeswoman Nathalie Houle said.

Dr. Gan could not be reached for comment this week. Defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle said last year that his client “is asserting his innocence and looks forward to a prompt resolution of these matters.”

In December, 2021, the Saskatchewan Mounties disclosed the charges against Dr. Gan. “On November 19, 2019, RCMP Federal Policing conducted a search warrant at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s facility in Swift Current, Saskatchewan,” it said. “The search warrant was a result of an extensive investigation led by the RCMP’s National Security Enforcement Section.”

After the RCMP search in Swift Current, Dr. Gan ceased working for the federal government. He had joined the federal agriculture department in 1998. Over the years he pioneered research on agriculture techniques that minimize the environmental impact of pulse crops, such as lentils.

The Royal Society of Canada has paid homage to his research in a video that is still posted online.

There was never any allegation that Dr. Gan betrayed a secret. The crux of the case was that he violated his federal employer’s code of conduct by failing to disclose his relationship with outside entities, including Gansu Agricultural University, in Lanzhou, China.

Federal authorities have been pursuing other cases involving allegations that scientists and engineers have gotten too close to China.

In November, the RCMP laid the first economic-espionage charge in Canadian history. A Hydro-Québec researcher and Chinese citizen is before the courts accused of obtaining trade secrets for the benefit of China.

In December, 2021, a Canadian judge scuttled a high-profile case against an Ontario shipbuilding engineer who was criminally accused of trying to leak naval secrets to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa. Delay was at issue in that proceeding too. “The accused’s right to be tried within a reasonable time … has been breached,” ruled Justice Michael Dambrot of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

The shipbuilding case failed despite Justice Minister David Lametti intervening in 2019 to shore up that prosecution by invoking a ministerial power to block the judicially ordered disclosures of sensitive intelligence information.

The Canadian government continues to be concerned about the potential for public prosecutions to spill state secrets about national-security investigations into China’s activities in Canada.

“I’m hoping we can land [on] a solution where we can use intelligence in our criminal investigations,” acting RCMP Commissioner Michael Duheme said last month. He was calling upon Parliament to shield sources and methods used by the Canadian state to probe what he called “foreign actor interference cases.”

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