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Mr. Trudeau has been leading an international campaign to obtain the liberation of Mr. Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, who were both arrested in China on national-security grounds on Dec. 10.MARTIN ACOSTA/Reuters

The Canadian government is now accusing China of ignoring the principle of diplomatic immunity with the ongoing detention of Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat who is currently on leave from his position at Global Affairs Canada.

After Mr. Kovrig’s detention last month, federal officials said on a number of occasions that he was no longer benefiting from diplomatic immunity, given that he was not currently accredited to an embassy. On Friday, however, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced China for ignoring international rules that govern the treatment of foreign diplomats. Under the principle of diplomatic immunity, foreign diplomats can be expelled from their host country, but do not face the threat of prosecution except in limited circumstances.

Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China, said Friday he is certain Mr. Kovrig does not have diplomatic immunity and he believes the Prime Minister may have misspoke.

“It’s clear when you are on leave without pay you have to travel with your ordinary blue passport. The Chinese know this. Because if he had been travelling with his diplomatic passport … they would not have been able to arrest him. They would have recognized right away they were contravening the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations if they did so.”

Mr. Trudeau has been leading an international campaign to obtain the liberation of Mr. Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, who were both arrested in China on national-security grounds on Dec. 10.

“Unfortunately, in China, they have chosen to act to detain two Canadians in an arbitrary matter,” Mr. Trudeau said during a news conference in Regina. “In one case, they have refused to accept the principle of diplomatic immunity, which is worrying. We will continue to work with Chinese authorities and our allies around the world to reinforce the importance of judicial independence and the rule of law.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined afterward to explain why the Canadian government now feels that Mr. Kovrig should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Mr. Kovrig is currently employed by the International Crisis Group; Mr. Spavor is an entrepreneur who organized travel to North Korea.

When asked to clarify Mr. Kovrig’s status, Global Affairs declined to comment, deferring to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Mr. Trudeau’s comments came as he faces growing pressure from the Conservative opposition to intervene with Chinese President Xi Jinping to seek the liberation of the two Canadians.

“Clearly, Justin Trudeau’s naive approach to diplomacy is not working,” said Conservative MP Erin O’Toole.

Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were arrested in what appeared to be a tit-for-tat reprisal for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was arrested on Dec. 1 at Vancouver International Airport at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to the U.S. to face bank fraud charges related to sanctions against Iran.

Ms. Meng was released on $10-million bail but cannot leave the Vancouver area.

“We have fulfilled our obligations in a clear, transparent and rigorous way. She has received a preliminary hearing and she is at home, having received all of the benefits of the Canadian judiciary process,” Mr. Trudeau said of Ms. Meng.

Mr. Trudeau has been marshalling international support to put pressure on Beijing to free the two Canadians.

European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted on Thursday that the European Union “calls for the release of the Canadian citizens in China.” Britain, Germany, France and Australia have also called for the immediate release of the Canadians.

On Monday evening, the Prime Minister spoke with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, and both leaders "reiterated the importance of respecting and adhering to justice and the rule of law," the Prime Minister's Office said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has also committed to pushing Beijing to free Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.