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A man holds a sign with photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December, 2018, as people gather for a rally in support of Hong Kong democracy, in Vancouver on Aug. 16, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

More than 100 former diplomats have asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene in the extradition case of high-profile Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou and allow her to return home.

In a Sept. 15 letter, the ex-foreign service officers call on the Prime Minister to negotiate a swap of Ms. Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., for two Canadians who China locked up in apparent retaliation for her arrest.

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was on leave from the department of Global Affairs, and entrepreneur Michael Spavor have been incarcerated in China for 648 days.

Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, is fighting extradition, and her case, including any appeals, could continue for years. U.S. authorities accuse Ms. Meng and other company executives of lying to banks so that they would clear transactions with Iran through the United States despite U.S. sanctions against doing business with Iran.

Gar Pardy, who once served as Canada’s director-general of consular affairs, helped organize the letter, and said direct negotiation with Beijing is the only way to break the impasse and win the release of the two Canadians.

“Their well-being, if not their lives, are on the line here,” he said in an interview.

He said the dispute with China is also thwarting Canada’s ability to deal with the rising Asian power both directly and on other international matters in which Beijing has a stake.

“China looms very large in the scheme of things for everything that goes on in the world. If you don’t have a relationship with China, there is not much of an ability to do anything,” he said.

The letter is the latest effort by former politicians and diplomats to persuade the Trudeau government to seek a prisoner swap. In June, Mr. Trudeau rejected a proposal from 19 prominent Canadians to free Ms. Meng in exchange for the detained Canadians.

Asked why Mr. Trudeau might consider a proposal he has already rejected, Mr. Pardy said he retains hope Ottawa might be persuaded. “I was in government for 40-odd years and I have known governments to change their minds,” he said.

Mr. Pardy said “well over 100” former members of the foreign service signed the letter, but declined to say who they are or to provide a copy. He said the group hopes that keeping the appeal low-key would mean the government would give it careful consideration. The Globe and Mail obtained a draft version.

“We would ask urgent consideration be given to direct negotiations with China that could lead to the release of Mme Meng Wanzhou from the threat of extradition to the United States in exchange for the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor,” the draft letter said.

The letter writers dispute Mr. Trudeau’s view that a prisoner exchange would encourage China or other countries to arbitrarily detain other Canadians to bend Ottawa to their will.

“We would emphasize such actions have not led to greater dangers for other citizens while travelling the world. In some measure, it would provide Canadians, specifically, with greater assurance of protection by their government when they travel abroad,” the letter to Mr. Trudeau said.

Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who is considered a hawk on China, said the group did not contact him.

“I am surprised that such a large number of ex-diplomats have supported Mr. Pardy’s view, which sends out a signal to the Chinese regime that holding Spavor and Kovrig is, in fact, working for them in terms of gaining support for their agenda in Canada,” he said.

Mr. Burton, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said it would be wrong for the government to intervene in a case before the courts.

“Spavor and Kovrig are being held in retaliation for an action undertaken by the courts in Canada, so our latitude for negotiation with China on this is highly constrained by maintaining established principles of due process of law,” he said.

Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a member of the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs, said any kind of direct negotiations on a hostage exchange for the two Michaels would only embolden China to continue hostage diplomacy.

“If that were to happen, it would set a bad precedent because if China becomes increasingly assertive, we might see more foreign hostage-taking in the years to come,” she said.

Michael Kovrig has been in Chinese detention since December 2018, and has been even more cut-off from the outside world since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in China. His wife, Vina Nadjibulla, is spearheading efforts to have him released and returned home to Canada.

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