Canada’s ambassador to China spent three weeks in Washington in early April holding talks with senior American officials aimed at facilitating the release of two Canadians imprisoned in China.
Three sources told The Globe and Mail that Ambassador Dominic Barton’s confidential mission to Washington involved discussions about a possible U.S. deferred prosecution agreement for Huawei Technologies Co. chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou that could lead to freedom for Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The sources declined to discuss details of the talks about a deferred prosecution agreement because of the sensitive and confidential nature of the matter. However, they stressed that Mr. Barton’s conversations involved a broader appeal for stronger U.S. action to put pressure on Beijing to release the two men from prison, where they have been locked up for 910 days.
One of the sources said Mr. Barton, former global managing partner of giant consulting firm McKinsey and Co., received a commitment from senior U.S. officials to put some intensity into applying pressure on Beijing.
Mr. Barton met with officials from the White House National Security Council and the departments of Justice, State, Defence, Treasury and Commerce. He also held talks with Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, according to the three sources. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss Mr. Barton’s mission to Washington.
Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were arrested shortly after Canada detained Ms. Meng, daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, in December, 2018, on an U.S. Justice Department extradition request for alleged bank fraud related to violations of American sanctions against Iran.
Ms. Meng, who is out on bail and living in a $13.7-million Vancouver home, is fighting extradition in a B.C. court. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rejected Beijing’s calls to intervene and send her home, saying there will be no political interference in Canada’s judicial system.
In late 2020, the U.S. Justice Department held discussions with Huawei on a plea agreement that would have allowed Ms. Meng to return home, a move that could have led to the release of the two Canadians.
Those talks appeared to have stalled and it is uncertain whether Mr. Barton was able to revive those negotiations during his April discussions in Washington with Biden administration officials and China’s U.S. envoy.
One of the sources said Mr. Barton, who was sent to Washington at Mr. Trudeau’s behest rather than using Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., recognizes that a deferred prosecution agreement might not happen. The source said that is why Mr. Barton’s overall mission was to convince the Biden administration to use its influence and garner support from other allies to persuade President Xi Jinping that China’s global image is being badly tarnished as a result of Beijing’s hostage diplomacy.
At a virtual meeting between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Biden in February, the President called for the safe return of the two Michaels, saying “human beings are not bargaining chips.”
Mr. Barton was recalled to Ottawa in late March for talks with the Prime Minister and senior officials, not long after Canada joined the U.S., Britain and the European Union in imposing sanctions on Chinese officials overseeing Beijing’s brutal treatment of Muslim minorities, including the Uyghurs.
At the time, Canadian officials told The Globe that Mr. Barton was brought home from Beijing for important strategic meetings concerning sensitive issues with China; they declined to discuss further details.
Secret trials for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, facing charges of espionage, were held in late March. Mr. Trudeau has said the two Canadians are the victims of “trumped up” charges.
Canadian officials told The Globe in March they believe there is a strong possibility that the U.S. Justice Department could negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement with Huawei that would allow Ms. Meng to return home while the Chinese telecom would pay a hefty fine. Any agreement would require an admission of wrongdoing. The U.S. Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York would have to approve an agreement.
The U.S. Department of Justice has the power to withdraw the extradition request and the arrest warrant. Even if Ms. Meng were allowed to return home as part of a U.S. settlement, China experts say it is unlikely that the two Michaels would be immediately freed. The more likely scenario is that China would wait at least two months before deporting them, likely after a Chinese court has ruled on the espionage charges.
Huawei has long maintained Ms. Meng’s innocence but Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who has been closely following the case and represented Chinese Politburo interests during the 1990s, said it’s his bet that Ms. Meng would be ready to admit wrongdoing as part of a resolution reached with the U.S.
“It’s a question of what wrongdoing,” he said, adding that it’s all about how a settlement is packaged. He thinks Huawei is willing to pay a fine. “It’s not a question of if; it’s how much.”
Mr. Kurland said he believes the Chinese government wants to resolve the matter and that Ms. Meng is willing to do what Beijing wants. Still, he noted, admission of any wrongdoing would be something big for the Huawei executive to swallow. “She has to carry around whatever she admits to for the rest of her life.”
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.