Canada is now calling for the “immediate release” of two Canadians detained by China after the Vancouver arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in what amounts to a significant shift in tone by Ottawa toward Beijing.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made the statement on Friday afternoon using words that more strongly criticize China’s conduct than previous government remarks. She also described the situation as “arbitrary detention."
Chinese officials took former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor into custody on Dec. 10, just days after China promised retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Ms. Meng. Canada apprehended the Huawei chief financial officer on Dec. 1, when she was changing planes in Vancouver, in response to a request from the United States under an extradition treaty.
“We are deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of two Canadians earlier this month and call for their immediate release,” Ms. Freeland said on Friday.
Key allies including the United States, Britain and the European Union also spoke in support of Canada and the detained Canadians on Friday.
Ms. Freeland’s remarks are the first in which Canada has called for the “immediate release” of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. This phrase is a fairly blunt diplomatic language that is reserved for when one country believes another state has absolutely no grounds to arrest its citizens.
“We’re not saying they should have due legal process in China – we’re making it clear this is not about due process any more and we recognize this to be a tit-for-tat retaliation,” David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said of Canada’s use of “immediate release.”
The former envoy said media reports that Mr. Kovrig has been treated harshly in China may have inspired Canada to act. On Thursday, news broke that Mr. Kovrig is not allowed to apply for bail or see a lawyer, faces questioning every morning, afternoon and evening, and is forbidden to turn off the lights at night. He is allowed only one consular visit from Canadian diplomats a month, and family and loved ones cannot see him, the reports said.
Mr. Mulroney said that, in his opinion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments on this matter in year-end interviews with the media were not tough enough and did not convey sufficient urgency. He speculated the Freeland statement is a corrective measure.
Ms. Freeland defended Canada’s decision to arrest Ms. Meng and said she is being treaty fairly and according to Canada’s “rule of law” system, in which the arbitrary exercise of power is restricted because authorities must operate according to established and well-defined laws. “Canada is a country governed by the rule of law. Canada is conducting a fair, unbiased and transparent legal proceeding with respect to Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer,” Ms. Freeland said in her statement on Friday.
“Canada respects its international legal commitments, including by honouring its extradition treaty with the United States. The rule of law is fundamental to all free societies. We will defend and uphold this principle."
China’s embassy in Canada has called the Huawei CFO’s arrest a “political conspiracy” to undermine the telecom giant, and has dismissed Mr. Trudeau’s assertion he had no role in the case.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently sowed confusion by musing he might interfere in the process to use Ms. Meng, whose father is Huawei’s founder, as a bargaining chip in his trade war with China.
The U.S. State Department on Friday defended Canada’s conduct in the Meng arrest, saying in a statement that Canada is respecting its international legal commitments by honouring its extradition treaty with the United States. "We share Canada’s commitment to the rule of law as fundamental to all free societies, and we will defend and uphold this principle. We also express our deep concern for the Chinese government’s detention of two Canadians earlier this month and call for their immediate release,” deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt attempted to counter accusations by Beijing that Ms. Meng is the victim of political machinations, saying Britain has confidence Canada is conducting “a fair and transparent legal proceeding.”
“The U.K. and Canada share a commitment to the rule of law, which is fundamental to all free societies,” Mr. Hunt said in a statement. “I am deeply concerned by suggestions of a political motivation for the detention of two Canadian citizens by the Chinese government. I call for them to be treated in a fair, unbiased and transparent manner.”
Also on Friday, a European Union spokesman raised concerns about China’s treatment of the Canadian detainees. “The declared motive for the arrest and detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both Canadian nationals, raises concerns about legitimate research and business practices in China. The denial of access to a lawyer under their status of detention is contrary to the right of defence,” the EU said.
Ms. Freeland thanked other countries for their public defence of Canada.
Mr. Mulroney said Canadians should not shy away from speaking in a straightforward manner to Beijing.
“We tend to be horrified with blunt talk towards China, but we shouldn’t forget successive Chinese officials have criticized Canada’s conduct," he said. “They need to hear the blunt truth in China.”