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Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained in China, are shown in these 2018 images taken from video./The Associated Press

Twelve months after arresting Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Chinese authorities have sent their cases to prosecutors, a procedural step that opens the possibility of a trial and should assure them their first access to a lawyer.

At the same time, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa marked the men’s year in detention with a sternly-worded statement that defended their incarceration and reiterated demands that Canada release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. She was arrested Dec. 1, 2018, at the Vancouver International Airport, and is fighting extradition to the United States on fraud charges relating to U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were seized days later by Chinese state security agents, and placed first under a lengthy interrogation by the Ministry of State Security before being formally arrested in May and transferred to police-run detention centres. They have been denied access to families or legal representation, their only exposure to the outside world coming through heavily-monitored 30-minute monthly meetings with consular officials.

But “the investigative process on the two cases has been completed and they have been transferred to procuratorial authorities for investigation and prosecution,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday. Under Chinese law, that means the two Canadians should now be granted the right to see lawyers, Chinese legal experts said, although such access can be delayed.

Chinese procurators have three options: take their cases forward with an indictment, send it back for supplementary investigation or reject the cases altogether, allowing the accused to go free, said Mo Shaoping, a prominent Chinese human-rights lawyer.

“The fact that these two Canadians have been transferred to the procuratorate is necessary and supposed to happen,” he said. They are unlikely to be allowed to see family until their case moves to trial, he said.

Both men are accused of violating Chinese state secrets law.

Still, movement in their cases “is a step forward for sure, and possibly a signal to the Canadian government. It offers the chance of dropping charges, but also of formal indictment – probably depending on the response from Canada,” said Peter Dahlin, the director of Safeguard Defenders, a group that monitors the Chinese judicial system.

Chinese regulations provide numerous avenues for delays and extensions, however, leaving little certainty of how quickly further steps may come.

“At this point, China probably has to maintain the facade that this is a legal issue,” said Michael Caster, a human-rights advocate who is also a senior adviser to Safeguard Defenders.

“But they may have come to the conclusion that it has reached its course and is doing more harm than good. The best way to resolve it without admitting it was a sham all along would be to hold a trial and convict them but to then kick them out of the country.”

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The Canadian government has criticized China for what it has called the “arbitrary” arrests of Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat working for International Crisis Group, and Mr. Spavor, a businessman who arranged trips to North Korea for artists, athletes and business groups.

Global Affairs spokesman Guillame Berube said in a statement Tuesday that the two men’s dention remains their “absolute priority.”

“Canadian officials will continue to provide consular services to them, work tirelessly for their release and seek improvements to the conditions of their detention,” Mr. Berube said.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa, in its statement, said “there is no such thing as ‘arbitrary detention,’” and urged Canada to “stop making irresponsible remarks.”

The arrest of Ms. Meng, the embassy added, had violated the rights of a Chinese citizen. “China once again urges Canada to correct its mistakes and immediately release Ms. Meng Wanzhou so that she can return to China safely,” it wrote.

Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters Tuesday that he was troubled that the two Canadians have been denied legal counsel.

“It’s been a year. Our heart goes out to them … it’s our top priority. I know that ministers have been working hard to secure their release. I know they’ve had consular access but it troubles me that they haven’t had any access to legal counsel,” he said.

With reporting from Robert Fife and Steven Chase in Ottawa and Alexandra Li in Beijing

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