In his letters from his small detention cell in Beijing, Michael Kovrig writes about the books he has read, the smog he is breathing, the rigorous exercise regime he has created and the stoic philosophy that has given him succour.
It is only in small ways that he hints at what he has endured in 561 days of detention, in which he has been interrogated for countless hours, plagued by tinnitus, fed boiled rice and vegetables – and so completely cut off from the world that he has not so much as seen a tree since he was taken away by China’s state security agents.
“He writes about the meaning of life, the meaning of suffering,” Mr. Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, said in an interview Monday with The Globe and Mail.
“In one of his letters, he actually said, ‘I now believe the meaning of life is to alleviate suffering.’ "
Sometimes, he signs his letters: “Rest assured I remain resolute and resilient.”
Mr. Kovrig, 48, is a former Canadian diplomat who China has charged with espionage, a crime punishable by life in prison. He and Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman, were detained in China days after the arrest at Vancouver airport of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is accused by U.S. prosecutors of fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran.
The Canadian government has called their arrest arbitrary, and China has been widely accused of engaging in “hostage diplomacy” as it demands the release of Ms. Meng. Chinese officials have disclosed no evidence against the men, but have said, “the facts of the crime are clear.”
The Canadian government says it has worked diligently to secure their release, even as it has deferred to the courts to weigh Ms. Meng’s fight against extradition to the U.S.
But appeals and legal challenges could extend the extradition process in Canada over five to eight years, Ms. Nadjibulla warned, as she described in detail how Mr. Kovrig has sought to maintain his mental acuity, his health and even Canada’s national reputation while behind bars.
“Quite frankly, Michael doesn’t have eight years,” she said. He “is in a fight for his life.”
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For Canada, she said, something has to change in its approach to China. Despite ongoing government efforts, “both Michaels are still in jail. Nothing has really moved,” she said.
“We cannot at the moment allow the real suffering of these Canadians to continue.”
“He and Michael Spavor have ended up in this situation because of no fault of their own. They are pawns in a bigger geopolitical drama. They are paying an incredible price. I can’t even begin to explain how incredibly painful and prolonged this has been.”
But she called for China, too, to reconsider its actions, saying the charges against Mr. Kovrig are “baseless.”
“I truly believe that by doing this, China sends a message to the rest of the world that is chilling – that basically says, ‘nobody is safe here.’ That even folks that are genuinely trying to understand, to build bridges, to improve relations, can be arbitrarily detained because of a geopolitical struggle that they had nothing to do with.”
To Chinese authorities, she said: “you are holding an innocent man.”
Mr. Spavor’s family has not spoken publicly about his detention. In an interview with The Globe, his lawyer, Jing Yunchuan, described meeting Mr. Spavor in January. “He was in good condition, both physically and mentally,” Mr. Jing said.
“He was handling it there better than we thought. It’s not that it’s a surprise, but we are just happy to see it, because he was very talkative, his spirits were high.”
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Mr. Kovrig, who working as senior adviser for northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, was detained on Dec. 10, 2018.
He and Mr. Spavor were thrust into six months of isolation and interrogation, under what China calls “residential surveillance at a designated location.” It’s a feature of the Chinese justice system that the United Nations Committee Against Torture says amounts to “incommunicado detention in secret places” and puts detainees at “high risk of torture or ill treatment.”
His letters censored and his conversations with consular officials monitored, Mr. Kovrig has revealed little of what took place in those first six months, after which he was moved to a detention centre more akin to a regular jail cell, three metres by three metres in size. But in a letter to his family in July, 2019, shortly after he was released from residential surveillance, he described emerging from a place of despair.
“If there’s one faint silver lining to this Hell, it’s this: trauma carved caverns of psychological pain through my mind,” he wrote. “As I strive to heal and recover, I find myself filling those gulfs with a love for you and for life that is vast, deep and more profound and comforting than what I’ve ever experienced before.”
In detention, the isolation has been replaced by unbending strictures.
Chinese authorities impose rules that govern every aspect of Mr. Kovrig’s life. He wakes at 6:30 a.m. with the other detainees and has told his family that, after rising, he rolls “up all of my worldly possessions, which consist of just a cup and a plate and a mattress.”
Breakfast, lunch and dinner times are regimented. He has described his diet as “a lot of boiled rice with an occasional boiled vegetable.”
Mr. Kovrig can possess only three books at a time. He can write letters for only a few hours on a single day each month; the remainder of the time, he is barred from using pen and paper. He cannot hold on to the letters he receives from family. He cannot watch the news or keep up with current events.
It was his family that described to him the global tumult of the coronavirus pandemic during a phone call in March, in which Mr. Kovrig was allowed to speak with his ill father. Ms. Nadjibulla, with whom he is married but separated, was also on the line, for a call that lasted 16 minutes and 37 seconds.
Before the call, Mr. Kovrig did not fully understand why, since mid-January, he has been barred from all consular visits – monthly meetings with Ambassador Dominic Barton that had provided human sustenance to his incarceration – or seeing his lawyer. Chinese authorities have said such visits cannot take place in the midst of the pandemic, but have given no justification for why it has also refused to permit regular video or phone calls.
“We were having to explain, in the middle of everything else, that there’s a global pandemic, and that’s why you’re not being visited,” Ms. Nadjibulla said.
But hearing his voice was “powerful,” she said.
“The fundamental thing that we all felt was, ‘he’s okay.’ He still sounded like Michael,” she said. “His voice cracked a few times, but otherwise he sounded strong.”
The only content Mr. Kovrig is allowed to watch, she said, are occasional movies selected by the detention facility. “I think he got to watch Mary Poppins four times,” she said.
Celebration of special occasions has been similarly spartan. For Chinese New Year, detainees were fed dumplings. For Christmas, Mr. Kovrig received two chicken drumsticks. On Christmas Eve, he was served a Domino’s Hawaiian pizza, " which is his least favourite pizza,” Ms. Nadjibulla said.
“It would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic,” she said.
But “gestures matter.”
Mr. Kovrig passes the time fighting atrophy of his body and mind.
He walks in circles in his cell, counting 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. He does push-ups, and tests himself to see how long he can maintain a plank posture. “The last time he told us, it was up to 20 minutes at a time,” Ms. Nadjibulla said. As a gesture of solidarity, his family and colleagues did a planking competition. “Nobody came close to that,” she said. He does yoga and meditates, too.
“He has definitely called on a lot of his own inner strength – a lot of philosophy, particularly stoicism,” she said. “He’s referring a lot to monastic practices.”
But mostly, Mr. Kovrig reads, calling his incarceration an “enforced sabbatical.”
“Books are really the only stimulation he has,” Ms. Nadjibulla said. He requests titles from his family, but detention officials only allow some to get through.
He has read books by Francis Fukuyama, Thomas Friedman, Henry Kissinger and Nelson Mandela. “They’re generally books around resilience, mental toughness, stoicism,” Ms. Nadjibulla said.
“He loved Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.” Before authorities cut off most contact, citing the pandemic, Mr. Kovrig had even started a monthly reading club, recommending titles for his friends and colleagues.
Among them was “Hellhole,” a 2009 New Yorker article about solitary confinement that asks a searing question: “Is this torture?” The answer, based on psychological assessments and the accounts of former detainees, is yes: Prolonged isolation is “objectively horrifying” and “intrinsically cruel.”
In Mr. Kovrig’s most recent letter, he described three cellmates who are all “smart, educated and relatively polite people.” They had taught him to play a Chinese card game called Dou Dizhu, or Fight the Landlord.
Mr. Kovrig, meanwhile, has said he still wants to represent Canada well, even from the isolation of a cell cut off from the world he has known.
“Since I’m the only Westerner any of them have ever known well, I ensure that my behaviour leaves a positive impression,” he wrote.
“I may not be Norman Bethune or Dashan” – Mark Rowswell, a Canadian entertainer famous in China – “but at least they’ll know that one more Canadian is also a good guy.”
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