Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

'Such options are within the rule of law and could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians,' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, seen here in Beijing on April 8, 2020 in a file photo, said.GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese government says that if Canada sets Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou free it could affect the fate of two Canadians jailed and charged with espionage by Beijing.

China has repeatedly rejected suggestions there is any connection between its detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor and Canada’s arrest of Ms. Meng in December, 2018, on an extradition request from the United States.

On Wednesday, however, a top spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs linked the two matters.

Zhao Lijian was commenting on reports in the Canadian media, including The Globe and Mail, of a legal opinion that says Ottawa has the authority to intervene in Ms. Meng’s extradition case and set her free immediately.

“Such options are within the rule of law and could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians,” Mr. Zhao said, according to the official English translation of his remarks published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier this week, former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock and former Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour, citing a legal opinion from Brian Greenspan, a Toronto lawyer with decades of experience in extradition cases, said Ottawa is wrong to claim it doesn’t have the legal authority to intervene in the Meng extradition case. They said the federal Justice Minister “may at any time withdraw” support from an extradition case, which triggers a court-ordered release of the extradition subject.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, has repeatedly said he cannot, and will not, intervene in the Meng case. “We’re not considering that. Canada has a strong and an independent justice system. ... Anyone who is considering weakening our values or weakening the independence of our justice system doesn’t understand the importance of standing strong on our principles and our values,” he said Monday.

Mr. Zhao, the Chinese government spokesman, repeated Mr. Rock’s and Ms. Arbour’s argument, however, and noted that Vina Nadjibulla, Mr. Kovrig’s spouse, also made the same point in separate interviews with The Globe and the CBC.

‘Something has to change’: Michael Kovrig’s letters detail life in a Beijing jail cell. His wife wants Canada to do more to free him

Meng Wanzhou lost her B.C. ruling on extradition. What now? A guide to the Huawei executive’s case so far

Why are Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor still detained in China?

“Even if it is a judicial case as the Canadian side claims, the Canadian Justice Minister has the authority to stop the extradition process at any point, as Kovrig’s wife said. This shows that the Canadian government can actually handle this incident in a just manner according to Canadian laws,” Mr. Zhao said.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were charged with espionage by Chinese authorities last week, a move that has escalated tensions between Canada and China.

They were jailed by China in December, 2018, just a few days after Ms. Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on a U.S extradition request. She is accused of bank fraud in connection with the violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The espionage charges against the two Canadians come just weeks after Ms. Meng failed in her first legal bid to strike down the extradition case against her.

China has repeatedly denied any link between the fate of Ms. Meng and that of the two Canadian men. Earlier this week, Mr. Zhao had urged the Prime Minister to “stop making irresponsible remarks” by suggesting that the jailing of the two men was retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest in Canada. He said the spying charges laid against Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are “completely different” and that “there is no such thing as arbitrary detention” in China.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said it was not surprising for China to hold out the offer of a prisoner swap.

The legal opinion put forward by Mr. Rock and Ms. Arbour plays right into Beijing’s hands, he said. “Obviously the Chinese will jump on that legal opinion to add pressure on the government.”

Mr. Saint-Jacques argued it would be wrong for Mr. Trudeau to give into this kind of domestic pressure because it would legitimize China’s actions.

“Caving into this hostage diplomacy, I don’t think we should do that,” he said. “The credibility of Canada is on the line after we have sought support from other countries to help us out.”

The Trudeau government must continue to rally other countries to stand with Canada so “that the Chinese will stop using these bullying tactics,” he said.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said it is well known that the Minister of Justice can intervene in extradition cases but he said it is too late for that to happen now. Ottawa has to let the judicial process unfold and “of course this is very sad for the families.”

Vina Nadjibulla, wife of Michael Kovrig, reads a letter he sent to his family at home in Canada. In it he says his love for Ms. Nadjibulla, and life in general, is filling the parts of his mind damaged by interrogation and detention.

The Globe and Mail

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe