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A person holds a sign with photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December, 2018.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

After forbidding him from speaking with his family for more than two years, the Chinese government granted Michael Spavor a call home over Christmas, Beijing has confirmed.

Michael Kovrig, a second Canadian detained in China since 2018, was also given a chance to talk to family over the holidays, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday. He had previously been allowed to speak briefly with his ill father by phone.

“Both of them and their families are deeply grateful,” Mr. Zhao said.

He declined to comment on the length of the conversations. Last March, when Mr. Kovrig’s father fell seriously ill, he was permitted a single phone call that lasted 16 minutes 47 seconds.

But the Chinese government would not commit to letting family members visit the two men in China.

Last year, Ottawa granted special permission to the relatives of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to join her in Vancouver, where she is under house arrest – in a multimillion-dollar home – as she fights extradition to the United States, which has accused her of fraud related to the violation of sanctions against Iran. Ms. Meng has said she is innocent of the charges. Her husband, Liu Xiaozong, arrived in Canada in October. Her two children landed in December.

Asked if China would ever provide similar dispensations to the families of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, Mr. Zhao did not provide a direct answer.

“It is normal for governments around the world to deal with matters involving each other’s citizens on the basis of mutual respect and reciprocity,” he said.

Mr. Zhao spoke after Global Affairs Canada announced it had “obtained agreements” with China to secure “increased family and consular access” for the two men, a statement first reported by Global News.

There is, however, no evidence of any change in consular access. Chinese authorities halted visits from January through October last year, citing pandemic risks. Since then, Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton has been able to speak with the men via video call once a month. Such diplomatic “visits,” monitored by Chinese authorities and capped at 30 minutes, have been important for the mental health of the two Canadians – brief reprieves from the strict routines of the facilities where they are being held, their families and friends have said.

Mr. Kovrig is in a detention centre in Beijing, Mr. Spavor in Dandong, a city on the border with North Korea where he had been living. Chinese authorities have accused both men of violating state secrets laws but have made public no evidence of their alleged wrongdoing. Neither man has been granted bail.

By way of contrast, Ms. Meng was released on bail soon after her arrest and allowed to live at home, although with restrictions that include a curfew, limitations on her travel and the requirement that she be monitored by a security team at her own expense. She has written about spending her time reading novels and completing oil paintings. She has also dined at restaurants with friends, used private shopping services at high-end stores in downtown Vancouver and even brought a massage therapist into her home, according to court testimony.

Mr. Kovrig is being held in a cell measuring roughly three metres by three metres. He has sought to maintain his physical and mental health by walking 7,000 steps a day and reciting gratitude mantras.

Mr. Spavor has, in correspondence with family, asked for books on language, history and religious philosophy. He has also requested sleeping masks, which suggests he is being kept in a facility with 24-hour lighting.

Both men are allowed to exchange letters with family members, though the delivery of such notes has been irregular and Mr. Kovrig is given just a few hours a month to use a pen and paper, his family has said.

The Canadian government has repeatedly called for their release. Beijing says they are being treated according to Chinese law.

The two Canadians were detained shortly after Ms. Meng’s arrest at Vancouver’s airport in December, 2018.

Her lawyers argued this week that she should be freed of the bail condition that she be accompanied by a security detail.

But Douglas Maynard, the president of Lions Gate Risk Management, the firm providing Ms. Meng’s security at a cost of $2-million a year, said in court that she had received threatening letters containing bullets.

Michael Kovrig has been in Chinese detention since December, 2018, and has been even more isolated since the pandemic emerged in China. In June, The Globe and Mail spoke with his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, who is spearheading efforts to have Mr. Kovrig released and returned to Canada.

The Globe and Mail

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