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The Dandong Detention Centre in China is where Michael Spavor has been kept since May 6, 2019.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Less than two weeks after Chinese authorities formally charged two Canadians with espionage, Ambassador Dominic Barton travelled nearly 700 kilometres from Beijing, hoping to end a half year of being barred from seeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

The unusual Canada Day trip brought Mr. Barton to Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province. Mr. Spavor has been held in the province since Chinese agents seized him and Mr. Kovrig on Dec. 10, 2018. Saturday will mark 600 days of detention for the men, who have been held in facilities where they are barred from seeing family – Mr. Kovrig in Beijing and Mr. Spavor in Dandong, the Liaoning city on the border with North Korea.

Typically, requests for consular visits are made from the embassy. But Chinese authorities have not permitted diplomatic access to the Canadian men since mid-January, citing pandemic rules that it has applied across the country’s detention system.

Mr. Barton’s trip to Shenyang marked a new effort to prod decision-makers into allowing him to see Mr. Spavor. The ambassador went directly to the High People’s Court in the city to deliver reading materials and a letter for Mr. Spavor – and to personally request access to the detained Canadian.

The effort achieved nothing tangible. Mr. Barton delivered the materials, but returned to Beijing still unable to meet Mr. Spavor. It has now been 6½ months since the detained businessman and Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat, have seen a Canadian official.

Who are Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and why are they still detained in China?

Editorial: The continued imprisonment of the two Michaels is an act of pointless cruelty

But the Shenyang trip, described by five people with knowledge of what took place, underscored both the intensity of the effort to advocate on behalf of the two men – whose detention has been widely called an act of hostage diplomacy following the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou – and the inability of the Canadian government, after more than 18 months of efforts, to achieve even modest concessions from Beijing on behalf of the two men. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the five people because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

For the families of the detainees, that has added to frustrations that have accumulated over the lengthening course of their detention.

“I’m obviously not giving up hope,” said Bennett Kovrig, Mr. Kovrig’s father. “But I can, of course, feel angry and disappointed at the inability of the different powers that be to secure his release.”

From the beginning, Mr. Kovrig’s family has “argued that every day Michael spends in this detention is unnecessary, unjust and must come to an end,” said Vina Nadjibulla, who is married to Mr. Kovrig and has been an advocate for his release, although the two are separated.

“Six hundred days is another sobering and difficult milestone. It’s 600 days too many. And I hope it will give people a sense of renewed urgency and resolve to find a resolution to the situation.”

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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Mr. Kovrig’s isolation has extended beyond the forced halt to consular visits. Chinese authorities have also slowed the exchange of letters with his family, as well as the reading materials they send him. Since January, there have been only two such exchanges, one around Easter and another in June.

The sole outside visit to Mr. Kovrig in the past half-year has come from his Chinese lawyer, who visited in July.

Both Canadians face the imminent possibility of court proceedings. According to Chinese procedural rules, a trial should, in general, take place two to 13 months after a person has been formally charged – although the law allows for avenues to extend that period. It has now been six weeks since Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were charged with state secrets violations punishable by life in prison.

Chinese authorities have not yet provided information about trial dates for either man, according to family members and a lawyer for Mr. Spavor.

But if the date is uncertain, the likely outcome is less so.

“On the past record, the Chinese authorities obtain something like 99 per cent of convictions. So that would suggest that the outcome is preordained,” Bennett Kovrig said.

Still, he dismissed the importance of legal considerations. “I am convinced that the whole issue of these hostages is a political one,” he said. Without any resolution of the extradition proceedings against Ms. Meng in Vancouver, “it’s really not realistic, I suppose, to hope for any particular clemency on the part of the Chinese authorities.”

The family helped to co-ordinate pressure on the federal government, urging Ottawa to consider intervening in Ms. Meng’s case with the powers it is granted by the country’s extradition law. Nineteen prominent Canadians, including former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour and former Liberal foreign-affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, signed a letter that said allowing Ms. Meng to continue through lengthy extradition proceedings will “add immeasurably to the stress” for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, who are likely to “remain in their Chinese prison cells until Meng is free to return to China.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rebuffed that entreaty, saying Canada “cannot allow political pressures or random arrests of Canadian citizens to influence the functioning of our justice system.”

That stance has not sat well with Bennett Kovrig, who accused the Trudeau government of a “historic mistake. History will judge them for it.”

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese government has said the evidence against Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor is sufficient, while accusing Canada and the U.S. of conspiring in a politically motivated prosecution against Ms. Meng. Her arrest was requested by the U.S., where prosecutors accuse her of committing fraud related to violations of bank sanctions against Iran.

Adam Austen, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, said Thursday: “Canada will continue to advocate on behalf of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor alongside its international partners.”

The detention of the two men remains “a top priority for the government of Canada,” he said. “Canadian officials continue to raise with Chinese counterparts Canada’s request for immediate consular access to Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor – and all Canadians detained in China – in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.”

For Mr. Kovrig’s family, however, the 600th day of detention will arrive with a sense of uncertainty. If the government won’t intervene in the proceedings against Ms. Meng, what will it do?

“If the government does not agree with the proposal put forward by the 19 eminent Canadians, then the question becomes: What other avenues are being explored to secure the release of both Michaels?” Ms. Nadjibulla asked.

“That’s where we are now. The question is, ‘What happens next?‘”

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