In 2018, China arrested Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig on allegations of espionage. The arrests came after the detention in Canada of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant. Canada denied the charges at the time and the two men were released in September, 2021, shortly after Ms. Meng reached a deal with the U.S. government and returned to China from Vancouver.
But now Mr. Spavor is seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement from the federal government and alleges that information he shared about North Korea with Mr. Kovrig was passed on to Canada and allied spy services without his knowledge and it ultimately led to the pair’s detention. A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada says suggesting that the two Michaels could have been involved in espionage is “perpetuating a false narrative” by China.
Here’s a rundown of the saga of the two Michaels until their release in 2021.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor: The basics
Who they are
Michael Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat who was in China working as an analyst and researcher for a think tank called the International Crisis Group. Michael Spavor is an entrepreneur who has worked to promote business and cultural ties between North Korea and the West. On Dec. 10, 2018 – days after Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request – they were separately detained in China and accused of breaking national-security laws.
How long they were in Chinese custody for
Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were detained in China for 1,020 days. In a dramatic reversal for China, hours after the case against Ms. Meng had been dropped, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Sept. 24, 2021, that the two Canadians were headed home.
Beijing had long dismissed Ottawa’s accusations that they were victims of “hostage diplomacy,” saying there was no link between their detention and the extradition case against Ms. Meng.
What China accused them of
The men were charged with espionage, but it took more than 18 months after their arrests for those charges to be formally laid. They deny the allegations.
Each was tried in secret in March, 2021 (March 19 for Mr. Spavor, March 22 for Mr. Kovrig) with little notice given to the Canadian government; six months later, Mr. Spavor was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Prior to their release, Mr. Kovrig had been awaiting a verdict. In China’s judicial system, verdicts can be delayed for years, but nearly 100 per cent of tried cases end in conviction.
What their detention was like
Mr. Kovrig was being held in Beijing and Mr. Spavor in Dandong, and neither one has had much access to the outside world. The Globe’s Asia correspondent visited their prisons a year after their detention, learning they were interrogated for months in solitary confinement-like conditions; guards initially seized Mr. Kovrig’s glasses; and their lights were kept on 24 hours a day.
China’s COVID-19 pandemic later made them even more unreachable, even by Canadian consular staff, because prisons were closed to visitors. Correspondence obtained by The Globe added more details about how the men kept busy and what books and materials they sought.
Michael Kovrig flew into Toronto on Saturday and spoke briefly to waiting reporters. With his then-wife, Vina Nadjibulla, by his side, Kovrig said it was fantastic to be back home in Canada.
The Globe and Mail
The key players involved on the Chinese and Canadian sides
The Chinese side
The chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecom company, Ms. Meng was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December, 2018. U.S. prosecutors accused her of lying to financial institutions as part of a scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran and do business there through a subsidiary.
On Sept. 24, 2021, she cut a plea deal with the U.S. Department of Justice that allowed her to return to China, nearly three years after she was detained. In the deal, she accepted a significant portion of the U.S. government’s case against her, but did not have to pay a fine or enter a guilty plea. The Huawei executive left Vancouver that evening on an aircraft bound for Shenzhen, China, where she arrived to a hero’s welcome.
Ms. Meng’s father founded Huawei, became a billionaire as he expanded its reach abroad and aims to make it the dominant global player in 5G wireless networks. In 2022, Canada joined allies United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand in banning Huawei from the country’s 5G network, citing privacy concerns.
Mr. Ren had offered to help arrange Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor’s freedom in exchange for his daughter’s release.
As ambassador to Canada, Mr. Cong was a key figure in Beijing’s efforts to win Ms. Meng’s release and convince Canada that Huawei’s technology is safe. More recently, in February, 2023, he was summoned by Global Affairs to express disapproval over the Chinese weather balloon that appeared in Canadian airspace.
China’s Foreign Minister had talked several times with his Canadian counterpart about Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
The Canadian side
Canada’s ambassador to China took the job in the middle of the Kovrig-Spavor saga after his predecessor, John McCallum, was fired in January, 2019, for suggesting to Chinese-language media that Ms. Meng had a chance of avoiding extradition to the United States. Mr. Barton became the detainees’ main advocate in China. He left the envoy post at the end of 2021.
Canada’s former foreign affairs minister had been trying to secure Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig’s release in talks with the Chinese and U.S. governments.
Mr. Kovrig’s wife at the time (the couple are now divorced), a professor at UBC, was a vocal advocate for the men’s release, coming forward in June of 2020 with letters from her husband in which he described how he’s trying to stay resilient and hopeful. “We cannot at the moment allow the real suffering of these Canadians to continue,” she says.
The Michaels’ return to Canada
On Sept. 24, 2021, the two Michaels returned home to Canada. Since coming home, Michael Kovrig has become an advocate for hostage diplomacy, calling on governments around the world to co-ordinate sanctions and travel bans on states that arrest foreigners for political reasons at a United Nations forum convened by the federal Liberal government in Sept. 2023.
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Nathan VanderKlippe, Steven Chase, Robert Fife, James Griffiths and The Canadian Press
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