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Experts say Ottawa shouldn't expect Beijing to do it any favours and free Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in return for medical co-operation on the coronavirus. Kovrig (left) and Spavor are shown in these 2018 images taken from video./The Associated Press

Michael Kovrig is trying to keep his mind intellectually engaged as he and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor mark their 500th day of imprisonment in China, cut off from family and friends as the result of their lengthy detention.

The former diplomat’s colleagues at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-profit think tank where Mr. Kovrig last worked, say they currently lack basic information about his condition because China closed its prisons to outside visitors in mid-January amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, an entrepreneur, have been detained by China since December, 2018, in what is widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive Meng Wanzhou in order for Ottawa to comply with a U.S. extradition order. They are jailed in facilities where the lights stay on 24 hours a day.

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COVID-19 reportedly hit Chinese prisons hard earlier this year, but Ottawa hasn’t said whether Mr. Kovrig or Mr. Spavor have suffered any health problems that required medical treatment. Canadian diplomats have been prevented from meeting the two men for more than three months now.

“We have been a little bit in the dark since January, really, because no [Canadian] consular officials have seen him directly,” Praveen Madhiraju, general counsel for the Washington-based ICG, said in an interview Wednesday.

“It’s 500 days too long. They should not have been arrested in the first place and there is no legitimate case against them.”

The only insight that the ICG has about Mr. Kovrig’s condition came from a brief phone call that Chinese authorities permitted with his sick father last month.

“I’m sure you can understand what he can communicate over the phone … in a short amount of time, doesn’t offer a great window into how he is doing," Mr. Madhiraju said.

“Under the circumstances, he is doing remarkably well. Michael is stronger and more thoughtful and has handled this detention better than anybody I can imagine. … He has been very focused from the early days that he needed to do everything he could to keep his mind actively engaged,”

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were taken into custody by China a few days after Canada arrested Ms. Wanzhou at the Vancouver International Airport.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the 500th day of the men’s captivity is a reminder of Beijing’s callous act.

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“It’s a reminder to all of us what an almost unimaginably cruel act this has been for the men and their families. Not only are their conditions terrible but they are cut off from any meaningful connection and at this time of pandemic they seem to be even more remote,” he said. “It’s a hostage-taking and the ransom demand is Meng Wanzhou.”

Ms. Meng is out on bail and living in a $13-million Vancouver home while her extradition hearing remains before a British Columbia court.

Chinese prosecutors have yet to file formal charges against Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, instead sending the case back for further investigation.

“The Chinese want us to confer a certain dignity on their process, but it’s very nakedly a quid pro quo,” Mr. Mulroney said. It simply follows every step and development in the Canadian legal process for Ms. Meng, he added.

“Madame Meng is being treated with great respect. She lives in comfort in Vancouver while our poor Canadians are stuck in a Chinese prison with very little access to fresh air and good food and no access to family and friends," Mr. Mulroney said.

Mr. Kovrig is being held in Beijing and Mr. Spavor in Dandong. Both men remain in facilities in those cities – Mr. Kovrig has been kept with few other people, while Mr. Spavor has been in a crowded cell.

The last visit of Canadian officials with Mr. Kovrig was on Jan. 14; with Mr. Spavor, Jan. 13. Canadian authorities have previously been granted consular access to the men once a month since they were detained on Dec. 10, 2018.

But prisons across China have been kept under a strict lockdown since early February, a countrywide measure that has kept guards from leaving and visitors from entering in order to block the spread of the virus. One guard worked an 81-day shift under what officials are calling a “closed duty system,” Chinese media reported.

It is common for dozens of people to be held in a small cell in Chinese prisons, and the risk of the virus spreading is real. In late February, authorities reported COVID-19 infections in three provinces, although none near where the two Canadians are being held.

Chinese authorities have allowed video visits to people in jails – but not to those in detention. Both Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are being held in detention facilities.

After a year of being granted only monthly consular visits, the two men were allowed to meet with lawyers for a brief period before the virus outbreak.

“The Canadian government needs to protest in the strongest terms and find a way to ensure that consular visits can resume, especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic,” NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a statement that the two men "are always in my thoughts and I am in close touch with their families.

He said he raised their case with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as recently as earlier this month, saying Canadian officials are still trying to regain consular access.

"In the context of COVID-19, we have proposed and are exploring creative options to ensure regular consular access to Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, and to other Canadians detained in China, in accordance with the safety protocols of the relevant Chinese authorities,” Mr. Champagne said.

“My officials and I will continue to do all we can to secure the release of these two Canadians and to reunite them with their families and loved ones," he said. "We will stand up for them at every step of the way and continue to rally support for their cases – including from partners around the world.”

The Chinese embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, predicted that the two men will remain imprisoned in China as long as Ms. Meng is prevented from going home.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said Canada should insist on phone calls, at least, to talk to the two men: “It should not be too difficult to organize a video conference."

U.S. authorities accuse Ms. Meng and other Huawei 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.

Ms. Meng’s defence lawyers in Canada have argued that the court must dismiss the extradition hearing because Canada did not have similar sanctions in place, an argument over “double-criminality.” They’ve been awaiting a decision.

The Huawei executive’s case is adjourned until April 27, when another case-management meeting is scheduled – likely to take place by teleconference because of COVID-19.

With reports from The Canadian Press and Reuters

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