Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Michael Kovrig, centre, embraces his wife Vina Nadjibulla, left, and sister Ariana Botha after arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, on Sept. 25.Frank Gunn/The Associated Press

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says unresolved matters with China are still hanging over Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians jailed by China for more than 1,000 days in what Canada condemned as a case of “hostage diplomacy.”

The two men were freed in September after the United States dropped an extradition case against a Huawei executive arrested in Canada. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said they were granted bail “for medical reasons.”

Ms. Joly confirmed this arrangement in remarks this week.

“The two Michaels are on bail right now according to the criminal law in China and so we want to make sure that we work that out with the Chinese government,” she told CBC on Wednesday. “We want to make sure that the case is completely resolved. That is really a priority.”

She said she met with Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor on Wednesday. “There are certain issues that have been not been settled yet.”

The Department of Global Affairs declined to elaborate on Ms. Joly’s statements to the public broadcaster, citing privacy law.

A government official said Canada posted no bond or made no payment to secure the two men’s bail in September. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“As Canada has always maintained, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained arbitrarily for political leverage, and Canada has repeatedly expressed concerns regarding the arbitrary nature of the whole process,” said Christelle Chartrand, a spokeswoman for the department of Global Affairs.

“The government of Canada remains committed to supporting them as they work towards rebuilding their lives and would urge everyone to respect their privacy.”

Canada must form a strong, unified response to the challenges China presents

New U.S. ambassador to Canada says China is greatest threat to democracy, urges Ottawa to align with U.S. to challenge Beijing

Both men were accused of violating state-secrets laws, and in August, 2021, a Chinese court found Mr. Spavor guilty of spying and illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison – which he has been expected to appeal. Mr. Kovrig was never convicted before being released in September.

With the legal cases unresolved, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are at risk – however remote – of extradition to China if they travel through countries friendly with Beijing. China has drawn up extradition treaties with nearly 60 countries, although only about 40 have ratified them.

Sida Liu, a scholar of sociology and law at the University of Toronto, said bail for a foreigner in China usually means the end of the case.

“Practically speaking, it’s over. As long as the two Michaels stay in Canada or don’t go anywhere near China, or a country with an extradition treaty with China, I think they are pretty safe,” Prof. Liu said.

But legally speaking, he said, both cases are unresolved, at least in theory.

He said he thinks the Canadian government is trying to figure out a way to conclude the legal cases.

Lack of resolution could hamper their future plans. Mr. Spavor, for instance, built a career out of connecting people with North Korea. And the most common travel route for people travelling to North Korea is through China.

Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University, also said bail in China for a foreigner usually means a case is over.

“Normally, when you are granted bail in China, it means they don’t have much interest in your case or you’re about to die or they’ve decided to use medical grounds as a political excuse to let you go,” Prof. Cohen said.

He said he is surprised that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have largely remained silent, giving no substantial interviews, since their return home more than 10 weeks ago. “Often when somebody is released from a very controversial punishment or prosecution in China, the victim of the Chinese abuse speaks out, tells us what happened and comments on his confinement,” he said.

“Sometimes there are good reasons for silence.”

In September, Ms. Hua, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Chinese President Xi Jinping also played a direct role and “gave personal guidance” to resolve the nearly three-year-old dispute, which ended when Ms. Meng and the two Michaels were returned to their home countries on flights that departed near simultaneously.

The Chinese embassy did not immediately respond to a request Thursday to clarify the status of the charges against the two men and the future of their legal cases in China.

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe