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Left to right: Ariana Botha , Bennett Kovrig and Michael Kovrig are seen in a handout photo.Handout

Ottawa must do everything in its power to free the two Canadians detained in China, the father of Michael Kovrig says in a plea to the government to rethink an approach that has shown no sign of securing their release after more than 560 days in custody.

“I urge the government to live up to its obligations,” Bennett Kovrig, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, told The Globe and Mail on Monday.

“Failure to act now is tantamount to a historic betrayal.”

The Kovrig family has sought high-profile legal advice and argues that Canadian law allows Justice Minister David Lametti to intervene at any time to end the extradition proceedings against Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive arrested in Vancouver on a U.S. warrant just days before Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in China.

‘Something has to change’: Michael Kovrig’s letters detail life in a Beijing jail cell. His wife wants Canada to do more to free him

Ottawa has authority to free Meng Wanzhou now, former justice minister, Supreme Court justice say

U.S. prosecutors have accused Ms. Meng of bank fraud related to the violation of sanctions against Iran. The two Canadians have been charged with espionage, a crime punishable by life in prison in China.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to intervene in Ms. Meng’s case, saying to do so would weaken the independence of the Canadian justice system.

But Canada’s Extradition Act gives Mr. Lametti the power to end the extradition proceedings against Ms. Meng “at any time,” according to the act, and if he does so, “the court shall discharge the person.” Several prominent Canadians, including former justice minister Allan Rock and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, have argued Ottawa must consider intervening. The law is clear “on its face,” Ms. Arbour told The Globe.

Now, Michael Kovrig’s family says it’s time for Ottawa to consider using that power.

“China has intimated for a long time that it was only interested in the repatriation of Meng and that it would immediately reciprocate by freeing the two Michaels,” Bennett Kovrig said. “Trudeau keeps repeating that he will not seek such a deal. Yet there is no alternative.”

The Canadian government “is bound to defend the rights of all Canadians even when they might be seized arbitrarily by a foreign power,” he added.

“It is thus bound to exhaust all avenues in order to free Michael.”

Western diplomats and scholars have criticized China for practising what they call “hostage diplomacy.”

The Chinese government has formally rejected any link between Ms. Meng’s case and the arrest of the two Canadians, but has repeatedly faulted Ottawa for creating tensions between the two countries. To Beijing, the charges against the Huawei executive amount to a political conspiracy that is up to Canada to resolve.

On Tuesday, China accused the U.S. and Canada of “double standards.”

“If the arbitrary arrest of Meng Wanzhou by the U.S. and Canada is so-called judicial independence, why use various pretexts to interfere in the Chinese judicial department’s independent handling of cases?” asked Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Mr. Trudeau has called the cases against Michael Kovrig and Mr. Spavor “a political decision made by the Chinese government,” saying Chinese officials have made the connection to Ms. Meng’s case clear.

Many Western democracies are confronting a similar struggle: how to respond to a Chinese government that has grown more confident in its power and assertive in its demands. Among the key questions: Will relenting to Beijing’s wishes encourage even more difficult demands in the future?

Michael Kovrig’s family argues history suggests otherwise.

On Aug. 4, 2014, Chinese state security agents seized Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt. They were imprisoned after a Chinese man, Su Bin, was arrested in Vancouver – also at the request of the U.S. Mr. Su was eventually extradited to the U.S., where he pleaded guilty to conspiring with hackers in that country to steal defence secrets.

A Chinese court, meanwhile, found Mr. Garratt guilty of espionage and theft of state secrets – the evidence against him included pictures taken on a public road of soldiers working – and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was deported after 775 days of interrogation and detention.

Vina Nadjibulla, the wife of Michael Kovrig, sends a direct message to Chinese President Xi, saying Mr. Kovrig is innocent and China is showing the world that nobody is safe there by keeping him detained.

The Globe and Mail

In that case, Canada refused to release Mr. Su.

But that approach “in no way influenced what China did” when it once again detained Canadians four years later in similar circumstances, said Vina Nadjibulla, who is married to Michael Kovrig and has been a dedicated advocate for his release, although the two are separated.

China’s Communist Party elites, who enjoy absolute power at home and growing influence abroad, are unlikely to be swayed by international pleas, Ms. Nadjibulla said.

“I believe it’s very difficult for outsiders to influence Chinese behaviour.”

Instead, she argued, Canada should “focus on what we need to do right now to meet our obligations to Canadian citizens who are in harm’s way.”

Since his arrest on Dec. 10, 2018, Michael Kovrig has been able to speak with his family only once, in a phone call that lasted less than 17 minutes. Chinese officials said they allowed the call for humanitarian reasons, because Bennett Kovrig “was seriously ill.”

It was an “emotional moment for both of us – we greatly miss each other,” Bennett Kovrig, 79, said of the call.

“When I first heard of his arrest, I was stunned but thought it might be a brief detention and he would soon be free. After all, he was not guilty of any crime.”

Shortly before his son’s incarceration, Bennett Kovrig fell and broke his hip. After undergoing surgery and hospitalization, he contracted a viral infection that left him unable to move his right leg.

He expressed pride in the resilience his son has shown throughout the lengthy period of incarceration. Over more than a year and a half, Michael Kovrig has been held in solitary confinement, interrogated at length and barred from seeing so much as a tree outdoors.

“He has all his life been eager for knowledge, to discover the world. His innate honesty and perseverance never left him,” his father said.

“His experiences since then have only confirmed these qualities.”

Vina Nadjibulla, wife of Michael Kovrig, reads a letter he sent to his family at home in Canada. In it he says his love for Ms. Nadjibulla, and life in general, is filling the parts of his mind damaged by interrogation and detention.

The Globe and Mail

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