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In this file photo from Jan. 21, 2020, a man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China for more than a year, outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was attending a hearing.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Chinese authorities have allowed two detained Canadians to speak with lawyers, The Globe and Mail has learned, a procedural step that provides them with another point of contact outside their detention cells.

For 12 months, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were denied access to legal representation after being detained in China following the December, 2018, arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver. Accused of violating state secrets laws, the men have been kept under 24-hour lighting and barred from seeing their families.

But they have been allowed to see lawyers on multiple occasions in the past few months, according to a person with knowledge of the situation – until the COVID-19 outbreak swept across China and suspended the meetings. The Globe is not identifying the source because the person is not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The meetings began after Beijing announced in December that the cases of both Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor had been transferred to procuratorial authorities following a lengthy period of investigation and questioning, which often involved eight hours a day of interrogation in facilities operated by China’s Ministry of State Security.

Chinese law allows a detainee to speak with a lawyer once a case has been transferred to the procuratorate. Procurators, who function much like prosecutors, can then accept the case and proceed to trial, send it back for further investigation or reject it. Mr. Kovrig’s and Mr. Spavor’s cases have been sent back for additional investigation, a step that can be repeated twice and act as a delay in proceedings.

“The Chinese authorities have taken the next procedural step in the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” said Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Barbara Harvey. “The cases of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are a priority for the government.”

The cases against the men have moved slowly as extradition proceedings take place in Canada for Ms. Meng, who is accused by the United States of bank fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran.

Over four days of hearings in January, her lawyers argued that her case is about sanctions evasion rather than fraud and that she should be set free. But British Columbia Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes has yet to rule on that hearing.

For the two Canadian men, “the fact they are seeing their lawyers is good. But the Chinese are in waiting mode – waiting to see what Judge Holmes will decide,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China.

“In the meantime, I hope that the folks in Ottawa are thinking about ways to put more pressure on Trump to help us out. But I don’t have much hope.”

Though China has not directly linked the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor with that of Ms. Meng, Beijing has told Ottawa the problem is of their making and theirs to fix. China has loudly decried the case against Ms. Meng, calling it a political prosecution staged by the U.S. Ottawa has ruled out a “prisoner swap.”

In China, however, courts are firmly under the control of the Communist Party, and the political dimensions of the cases against Mr. Kovrig and Ms. Spavor have overshadowed the legal proceedings.

Allowing the two men to see lawyers means “the prosecution is going forward,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International’s East Asia regional office. Defence lawyers should in theory “have the ability to start carrying out their own investigation and discovery. But that’s not really practical in China. They’re not going to get very far,” he said.

In cases that China deems national security matters, lawyers have the ability to see less sensitive evidence against their clients, but “they won’t be allowed to take pictures of or use any tools to copy the legal records, because all files and evidence are regarded as national secrets,” said Zhang Dongshuo, a lawyer representing Robert Schellenberg, one of two Canadians sentenced to death on drug charges after the arrest of Ms. Meng.

The COVID-19 epidemic in China has created new obstacles to seeing detainees. Lawyers can either set up meetings via video conference or by applying for permission to speak in person. But the application process is complicated, and authorities have been limiting the number of personal visits, Mr. Zhang said. Lawyers who travel out of Beijing must also self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return, a deterrent to leaving the city.

Diplomats are facing obstacles as well. Canadian consular officials and Ambassador Dominic Barton have met with Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor monthly since their detention. The most recent meetings, however, were Jan. 13 and Jan. 14.

Even so, the fact the men have been able to meet with lawyers is likely to give them a boost, said Kevin and Julia Garratt, two Canadians detained by China in similar circumstances in 2014. Consular visits are capped at 30 minutes. Lawyer visits can last longer.

“You would feel better and you would think there’s some movement – that maybe things are going to progress a little faster now,” said Mr. Garratt, who was released in 2016. In his first meeting with a lawyer, after 346 days in detention, he was able to pass along a handwritten message to his family. Meeting the lawyer “made me feel safe, renewed my hope and increased my determination to survive,” he wrote in Two Tears on the Window, a book about his family’s experience.

But by the second meeting, the lawyer was more guarded – after coming under pressure from Chinese authorities, Mr. Garratt said.

He doesn’t believe legal interventions helped his case, which eventually ended in conviction and then deportation after a lengthy campaign by the Canadian government. “I don’t know that [having a lawyer] really had any bearing,” he said. “From what I saw from the inside, I don’t know that he helped.”

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