Kovrig and 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 (more on her later) – they were separately detained in China and accused of breaking national-security laws. They have been in Chinese custody ever since.
What China accuses them of: The men are charged with espionage, but it took more than 18 months after their arrests for those charges to be formally laid. They deny the allegations, which have not been tested in court. In December, 2020, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry was reported to have said they were “arrested, indicted and tried,” but Canada said it confirmed this was a mistranslation and they had not been tried.
What their detention is like: Mr. Kovrig is 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 epidemic 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 have been keeping busy and what books and materials they’ve sought.
A who’s who
The Chinese side
Meng Wanzhou: The chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, Ms. Meng was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December, 2018. She is accused by U.S. prosecutors of lying to financial institutions as part of a scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran and do business there through a subsidiary. The U.S. Justice Department has also indicted Huawei itself and some of its subsidiaries, accusing them of a decade-long scheme of bank fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Ms. Meng denies the allegations and is fighting an extradition order in court, though she lost a ruling in May, 2020, where a judge decided that the crimes she’s accused of in the United States would also be illegal if committed in Canada.
Ren Zhengfei: Ms. Meng’s father founded Huawei, became a billionaire as he expanded its reach abroad and is now aiming to make it the dominant global player in 5G wireless networks. Its technology is under intense global scrutiny by the United States and its allies over fears that it could be used for Chinese espionage. Mr. Ren has pressed Canada for his daughter’s release, and offered to help arrange Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor’s freedom in exchange.
Cong Peiwu: As ambassador to Canada, Mr. Cong is a key figure in Beijing’s efforts to win Ms. Meng’s release and convince Canada that Huawei’s technology is safe.
Wang Yi: China’s Foreign Minister has talked several times with his Canadian counterpart about Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
The Canadian side
Dominic Barton: Canada’s ambassador to China took his 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 is now the detainees’ main advocate in China.
François-Philippe Champagne: Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister has been trying to secure Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig’s release in talks with the Chinese government.
Vina Nadjibulla: Mr. Kovrig’s wife has been advocating 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.
What could happen next?
The Michaels’ case: For a year and a half, China’s government refused to link its arrest of the Canadians with Ms. Meng’s case, but in June of 2020, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested it was “within the rule of law” to release the men if Ms. Meng was freed first.
The Meng case: A prisoner swap – like the one that some Chrétien-era politicians and former staffers have suggested – would be a complicated matter for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who says he won’t trade Ms. Meng for the Canadians because it would undermine the independence of Canada’s judiciary. But decisions on extradition are still ultimately political, because they need to be approved by the Justice Minister. A more direct solution would be for American prosecutors to drop the charges or make a plea agreement with Ms. Meng, and according to sources who’ve spoken with The Globe, Ms. Meng’s lawyers have been in talks with the U.S. Justice Department about that.
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Nathan VanderKlippe, Steven Chase, Robert Fife and The Canadian Press
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