China is commencing trials within days for two Canadians it locked up in apparent retaliation for Canada’s 2018 arrest of a Huawei executive at the request of U.S. authorities.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been incarcerated for 829 days. Mr. Spavor will go to trial on Friday in Dandong, the city on the North Korean border where he is being held. Mr. Kovrig will be in court on Monday in Beijing.
On Thursday, the first high-level in-person talks between Beijing and the Joe Biden administration are set to begin in Alaska. The Canadian government is counting on this attempted reset of U.S.-China relations – after years of erosion under president Donald Trump – to open the door for the release of the two Canadians.
The Biden administration has made clear that it intends to push Beijing over its treatment of U.S. allies and human rights violations.
China alleges Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are spies. “We believe these detentions are arbitrary, and remain deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement.
Extradition hearings continue in Vancouver for Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive accused by the U.S. of committing fraud related to violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran. Ms. Meng denies the charges and is fighting extradition. Those hearings are expected to conclude in May but appeals could drag out proceedings for years.
Putting the two Canadians on trial now “could be a signal on the Meng case,” said Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “It could be a signal that China won’t be ‘bullied’ by outside pressure.”
But “if this isn’t a signal to the U.S., then it’s diplomatic folly of epic proportion, and clearly, it’s not the latter.”
Trials in China are regularly completed in a single day.
The Chinese justice system, which acts at the direction of the Communist Party, convicts nearly 100 per cent of the people who stand trial. The charges against the two Canadians carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Canada on Wednesday demanded immediate access to the two Canadians and the right for Canadian government representatives to attend the trials.
“Canadian officials are seeking continued consular access to Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the China-Canada Consular Agreement, and have also requested to attend the proceedings,” Mr. Garneau said in his statement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused Beijing of concocting what he calls “trumped up charges” against the two men in an effort to apply political pressure on Canada to release Ms. Meng.
The issues on which the U.S. government plans to push Beijing include China’s barrage of punitive trade actions against Australia since the country’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. The disease was first identified in China.
Washington is “not prepared to take substantial steps to improve relations” with China until “a more normal interplay between Canberra and Beijing is established,” Mr. Biden’s Indo-Pacific co-ordinator, Kurt Campbell, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an interview this week.
The Biden administration has also signalled to Mr. Trudeau and top officials that they were willing to do all that is possible to facilitate the release of the two Canadians once a review of China-U.S. relations is completed, senior officials in Ottawa told The Globe and Mail. The Globe is not identifying the federal sources because they were not authorized to speak on these matters.
Beijing, however, wants to make clear that it will respond to any action that involves Ms. Meng. Trials for the Canadians send a message: “Don’t think you’re going to move ahead on one without moving ahead on the other,” said Paul Evans, HSBC Chair in Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.
Taking Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor to trial would also be a way for Beijing to demonstrate resolve to the Americans.
“The movement to a trial is highly negative and indicates China doesn’t want to be seen to be pushed around – by the Americans or anyone else,” said Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the University of Alberta’s China Institute.
It’s a sign of “the Chinese laying down a marker of where they stand on this issue. And I don’t think they will be dissuaded from their course by the meeting on Thursday,” he said.
Public statements of concern from the White House for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are a demonstration of support, “but that’s not what’s going to lead to opening their jail cells, I’m afraid,” Mr. Houlden said.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the Trudeau government needs to get a commitment from the Biden administration that the United States will help secure the release of the two Michaels.
News of the trial date hit hard for one person who knows Mr. Kovrig personally.
“It’s overwhelming to contemplate,” said Vina Nadjibulla, who is married to Mr. Kovrig and has been an advocate for his release, although the two are separated. “What I think about is Michael. As hard as it is here to process the news and to make sense of it all, it is much more difficult for him because he has to do it all by himself.
“After more than 800 days of isolation and confinement, he is now faced with this very difficult development.”
Ms. Nadjibulla said the court dates mean Canada must even more urgently work for the release of the two men.
Chinese security agents seized the two Canadians on Dec. 10, 2018, days after Ms. Meng was arrested at the Vancouver airport.
In June, 2020, Chinese authorities charged Mr. Kovrig with spying on national secrets and intelligence for entities outside the territory of China. Mr. Spavor was charged with spying on national secrets and illegally providing state secrets to entities outside of the territory of China.
In China, a sentence can be announced on the same day or delayed, sometimes for a long period.
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