One of the two Canadians jailed by China for nearly three years in a case that was at the heart of a diplomatic crisis is seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement from Ottawa, two sources say, alleging he was detained because he unwittingly provided intelligence on North Korea to Canada and allied spy services.
Michael Spavor alleges that the deception was conducted by fellow Canadian prisoner Michael Kovrig, and it was intelligence work by the latter that led to both men’s incarceration by Chinese authorities, according to the sources.
These allegations cast a new light on the lengthy imprisonment of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor as well as on the work that Mr. Kovrig was doing in China.
China arrested Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig in December, 2018, on allegations of espionage in the aftermath of Canada’s detention of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Canada flatly denied at the time that the two Michaels were involved in espionage, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, cabinet officials and then-ambassador to China Dominic Barton saying that Beijing had arbitrarily incarcerated the two Canadians on trumped-up charges in retaliation for the arrest of Ms. Meng.
Confidential negotiations are taking place between Toronto lawyer John K. Phillips, who is representing Mr. Spavor, and Patrick Hill, executive director and senior counsel at the federal Department of Justice and Global Affairs Canada, the sources say. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
Fluent in Korean, Mr. Spavor is among only a handful of Westerners who has met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He has been pictured sharing cocktails with Mr. Kim on board one of his private yachts, after they had been jet-skiing in the bay next to Wonsan, one of Mr. Kim’s pet economic development areas, and has met senior ministers in the hard-line Communist regime.
As part of his tourist travel business, Mr. Spavor helped arrange visits by former basketball star Dennis Rodman over the past few years, where the player struck up a friendship with the young dictator.
The sources said Mr. Phillips is alleging that his client was arrested by China because of information that he shared with Mr. Kovrig. That information, he alleges, was later passed on, unbeknownst to Mr. Spavor, to the Canadian government and its Five Eyes spy-service partners in the course of Mr. Kovrig’s duties as a diplomat with the Foreign Affairs department’s Global Security Reporting Program.
He is also alleging, the sources say, that a senior diplomat in Beijing had conversations with Mr. Kovrig about his relationship with Mr. Spavor after Mr. Kovrig took a leave of absence from Global Affairs Canada in 2017 to join the International Crisis Group. The ICG is an independent, non-governmental global think tank.
The Globe and Mail is not naming the diplomat at the request of a senior government official because he is stationed in a sensitive location overseas.
The government official denied allegations presented by Mr. Phillips to Ottawa that Chinese security services arrested the two men because Mr. Kovrig was allegedly careless in discussions with Canadian authorities about Mr. Spavor.
The official said the arrests were “completely arbitrary” and were not because of “one person’s actions over another.” The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
Mr. Spavor was charged by Chinese prosecutors with spying for a foreign entity and illegally procuring state secrets. Mr. Kovrig was charged with illegally receiving state secrets and intelligence in collaboration with Mr. Spavor. In August, 2021, more than one month before a deal was reached to send both men home, Mr. Spavor was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Mr. Kovrig had not been sentenced before his release.
A third highly placed source told The Globe that Mr. Kovrig was considered an intelligence asset, as a diplomatic officer at the Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP) within the Canadian embassy in Beijing, and later when based in Hong Kong at International Crisis Group.
The source said Mr. Kovrig was not an employee of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service but that information he gathered in China was viewed as valuable by the spy agency. The Globe is not identifying the source because they could face prosecution under the Security of Information Act.
Diplomats assigned to the GSRP have the task of collecting information on security in countries of strategic importance to Canada. GSRP officers are not covert intelligence operatives and they are not supposed to handle, recruit and pay human sources.
However, a 2022 report on Global Affairs’ national security and intelligence activities by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians said GSRP reports are “disseminated within the security and intelligence community and across the Fives Eyes,” an intelligence-sharing partnership that includes Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
According to a 2018 internal evaluation by Global Affairs, “domestic and allied partners ascribe a high value to GSRP reporting, characterizing it as a ‘uniquely valuable product, which fills a clear niche within the security and intelligence community.’ ”
The Globe sent a list of questions to Mr. Phillips on the settlement he is seeking and threat to sue the government and Mr. Kovrig. In an e-mail, Mr. Phillips said he was unable to comment because “I do not have any instructions” from Mr. Spavor. His client did not respond to a request for comment.
Global Affairs declined to discuss the negotiations with Mr. Phillips, but denied Mr. Kovrig ever engaged in espionage.
“Since their release from arbitrary detention, the Government of Canada has remained committed to supporting them both to rebuild their lives following this difficult ordeal,” department spokesperson Anabel Lindblad said in a statement. “Both men are free to speak about their experience of their arbitrary detention in China. Due to privacy considerations, no further information can be disclosed.”
Suggesting that the Michaels could have been involved in espionage is “perpetuating a false narrative” by China, she said, adding that Mr. Kovrig was not a spy.
“GSRPs operate openly and meet with a broad range of contacts on a voluntary basis. The program does not recruit or run human sources, and it does not pay for information,” she said. “It is not a covert intelligence program.”
In a statement, Mr. Kovrig said: “I was a foreign-service officer posted to China as a diplomat, working according to the standard of laws, rules and regulations governing diplomats.” Mr. Kovrig did not address his time spent at the International Crisis Group.
In June of 2020, the Prime Minister strongly dismissed China’s allegation that the two Canadians were spying. “It has been obvious from the beginning that this was a political decision made by the Chinese government, and we deplore it, and have from the very beginning.” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has called the two Michaels “very brave Canadians who are behaving with incredible decency and incredible courage.”
China subjected Mr. Spavor to lengthy interrogation sessions, according to one of the sources. He was drugged, forced to sit in a chair for long hours and subjected to threats of execution, the source said. Mr. Spavor admitted to the Chinese interrogators, the source said, that he provided information to Mr. Kovrig.
China freed the two men in September, 2021, after 1,020 days behind bars. Their release came shortly after Ms. Meng reached a deal with the Biden administration to return to China from Vancouver in exchange for acknowledging some wrongdoing in a fraud case. The U.S. Justice Department had accused her of bank and wire fraud regarding financial transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing from 2012 to 2016, said China viewed Mr. Kovrig as an espionage agent because of his work at GSRP. But he said Mr. Kovrig, who worked in the embassy from 2012 to 2014 when Mr. Saint-Jacques was envoy, was not a CSIS agent. He acknowledged, though, that any information gathered by Mr. Kovrig would have been valuable to CSIS.
“It was the type of work that would have been of interest to CSIS or people at Privy Council Office who do intelligence analysis because those were very good reports. Well researched, detailed and of course that is why the Chinese were watching him,” he said. “I am sure the Chinese regarded him as a spy.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques said Chinese authorities spent the first half of Mr. Kovrig’s detention questioning him about the work he did at GSRP.
An acquaintance of both Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, who is involved in overseas intelligence work, said they often went for drinks with the two men. Mr. Kovrig also visited Mr. Spavor where he lived in China near the North Korean border, the acquaintance said. The Globe is not identifying the individual because of concerns they could be arrested in China.
The acquaintance described Mr. Spavor as “utterly naive.” Even though he had access to Kim Jong-un and senior ministers, the individual said Mr. Spavor never sought to exploit those relationships.
A few weeks before Mr. Kovrig was arrested, the acquaintance had drinks with him in Hong Kong. The acquaintance said Mr. Kovrig was warned about the danger of travelling in China without a diplomatic passport.
Mr. Phillips, Mr. Spavor’s lawyer, is an experienced litigator in these kinds of national-security cases. In 2017, he obtained a $10.5-million settlement for former Guantanamo Bay inmate Omar Khadr. Mr. Khadr was arrested at age 15 by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and accused of killing an American soldier.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that Canada breached his rights by sending CSIS agents to interrogate him and sharing the results with the United States. He was returned to Canada in 2012 and was released from prison in 2015.
Mr. Phillips also represented a group of five CSIS agents and analysts who filed a lawsuit in 2017, accusing the agency of Islamophobia, racism and homophobia. CSIS reached a $7-million settlement later that year.
Editor’s note: A 2022 report that discussed GSRP was incorrectly attributed to a Senate committee. It was in fact produced by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.