As Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig marked 1,000 days in Chinese prison cells, their families, friends, senior politicians and diplomats gathered in Ottawa in a show of solidarity and to call for their freedom.
“It’s just another day. But it’s another day that goes by without our Michaels being back with us,” Paul Spavor said in Ottawa on Sunday. Paul spoke publicly for the first time since his brother and Mr. Kovrig were arbitrarily detained by China in December, 2018.
China has been accused of hostage diplomacy in the arrests of the two men nine days after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport on a U.S. extradition request. The years long separation has taken a toll on his family, Paul told the crowd, especially on their elderly father. “It weighs on him greatly and we worry about him.”
The walk from the capital’s Old Ottawa South neighbourhood to Major’s Hill Park, near Parliament Hill stretched for five kilometres – or 7,000 steps – the same number of steps that Mr. Kovrig paces out each day as he walks a tiny circle around his prison cell.
“Today he will not be alone in that walk. We will accompany him, all of us and all of our friends, old and new,” said Vina Nadjibulla, Mr. Kovrig’s wife.
In a rare move, the top diplomats from the U.S., Britain, the European Union, Germany and Australia attended the march. Their message: that they stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Canada and that “hostage diplomacy is unacceptable,” said Arnold Chacon, acting U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Despite Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor passing yet another grim milestone in prison, their families said they still hold out hope the two men will be freed. But how and when they might be released is an open question. And while the federal government says its approach is showing signs of progress, critics say the fact that the 1,000-day milestone was hit shows a new tack is needed.
In separate trials this year in closed Chinese courts, Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were both convicted of spying. The Canadian government disputes the little evidence that has been disclosed. Mr. Spavor was handed an 11-year sentence, while Mr. Kovrig is still awaiting a decision.
In Markham, Ont., on Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his government’s work on the cases. He said Ottawa has used every tool at its disposal and rallied allies to put pressure on China alongside Canada, pointing to the declaration on arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations, signed by 65 countries.
“We will not rest until the two Michaels are once again home with their families,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau attended the Sunday march, though he said he was there as a private citizen.
“I would not say that it has achieved nothing,” Mr. Garneau told reporters. “If you’re saying ‘Are they out of jail?’ No, they’re not. But the point is that the whole process that has been going on for the last 1,000 days is actually moving in a positive direction.”
Conservative MP Michael Chong also attended the event; no one from the NDP made an appearance.
The federal government has resisted calls from prominent Canadians to free Ms. Meng in the hopes that Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig would then be released. Mr. Trudeau has said that would put more Canadians at risk of arbitrary arrests. But at the Sunday march, the Liberal government’s former representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, said he supports a negotiated settlement that could include dropping the extradition case.
“We’re now at the 1,000th day, and the approach that is being taken has not worked for the Michaels,” Mr. Harder said.
However, Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former senior government official who worked on China issues and is now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa, applauded the federal government’s hard line against that idea. She also said Canada’s efforts to amass international support have worked to embarrass China and helped to turn the two men into liabilities rather than assets to be traded. The more that international pressure can tip the scales on that balance the better the chances are for Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig to be released.
“At this point it’s one of the few hopes we’ve got,” Ms. McCuaig-Johnston said.
Still she said the Trudeau government’s stance in other areas has weakened its position with the super power, and showed that China can hold leverage over Canada. The government’s long-delayed decision on whether to allow Huawei into Canada’s 5G systems is one of many examples that she pointed to.
The federal Conservatives have promised to ban Huawei from the 5G network, decouple critical parts of the supply chain from China, recognize the Uyghur genocide and apply Magnitsky sanctions to “China’s worst human-rights offenders.”
“China might be much larger in terms of population and economy, but they can learn a lot from us with respect to human rights, dignity and the rule of law,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in Vancouver on Sunday.
That tougher approach would have given Canada a stronger hand at the negotiating table, said Ms. McCuaig-Johnston, but it doesn’t guarantee a different outcome. She said she is more hopeful now then she has been in the past as international support has grown and she said there are some possible legal off-ramps to the stalemate, depending on how the B.C. Supreme Court rules on Ms. Meng’s extradition.
Ariana Botha, Mr. Kovrig’s sister, said that after more than two years of advocating for her sibling, Sunday’s march in Ottawa and others held around the world were an important show of support as the families remain stuck in limbo.
“It’s a pretty helpless feeling. There’s so little that I can do so to at least do this feels like we’re doing something,” Ms. Botha said.
“But you know, as my brother has said himself, we can’t confuse action with impact; something actually needs to happen.”
With reports from The Canadian Press
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