A former Canadian diplomat detained in China has been accused of endangering national security, Chinese media reported Wednesday night.
Michael Kovrig, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, was seized in Beijing on Monday night, not long after China threatened “serious consequences” for Canada if Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of technology giant Huawei, was not released from Canadian custody.
Mr. Kovrig was detained by the Beijing arm of the Chinese state security apparatus, ICG said in a statement. The group “has received no information about Michael since his detention and is concerned for his health and safety.” Mr. Kovrig has worked for ICG as a Hong Kong-based analyst since early last year. The non-profit group conducts field research on violent conflict and promotes policies to prevent or resolve them.
On Wednesday, the Beijing News reported that Mr. Kovrig is being held and investigated by Beijing state security, and is “suspected of participating in activities that harm China’s national security. The case is now under review.”
The newspaper, citing “the relevant department,” provided no further details, but the allegation is a serious one. People found guilty on charges related to endangering state security in China can be sentenced to life in prison.
“The report does not indicate that the investigation has crystallized into concrete charges, but that the report speaks in terms of endangering national security is very troubling,” said Margaret Lewis, a China legal scholar at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey.
Chinese authorities can use a number of “exceptions” in national security matters, such as barring access to a detainee for family, lawyers and even prosecutors during the investigation, which can last up to six months without charges, said Peter Dahlin, the director of Safeguard Defenders, which tracks China’s detention of people during investigations.
Alleging a national security offence “means they are serious about using Mr. Kovrig as a political weapon,” Mr. Dahlin said.
“He will be in solitary confinement for the entire duration and, at this point, they are likely limiting food and sleep for a few more days, during the initial interrogation period.”
Such detention practices create “a perfect environment for certainly mental, if not physical, torture and other ill treatment designed to get people to confess things they may not actually have done,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, an expert on Chinese law who is East Asia research director with Amnesty International.
Canadian consular officials have not been able to meet with Mr. Kovrig, two people familiar with the matter told The Globe and Mail.
Earlier on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry said Mr. Kovrig’s employer, International Crisis Group, is not a registered organization in China, citing the country’s controversial foreign NGO law.
“If ICG sends its staff to do activities in China, this action itself … has violated the law. Because this organization is not registered in China,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
The seizure of Mr. Kovrig has widely been seen as retribution for the arrest in Canada of Ms. Meng, the Huawei executive who is wanted in the United States on fraud charges related to violation of economic sanctions against Iran.
“We don’t have a good sense really of why this was done. But it does seem to be in retaliation,” said William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China and a Beijing-based senior counsellor with the Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm.
Canadian authorities have said they are following legal procedures in Ms. Meng’s case. She was granted bail on Tuesday, even as China renewed demands that she be set free.
Mr. Lu did not answer questions on whether China acted out of retaliation against Mr. Kovrig.
ICG had no immediate response to the accusations by the Chinese foreign ministry.
Mr. Kovrig, a Mandarin speaker who first came to China as a diplomat in 2014, is a well-regarded observer and analyst of security issues in northeast Asia, with a particular interest in North Korea and China, including China’s rising global influence.
In an earlier statement, ICG said, “Michael has distinguished himself for his rigorous and impartial reporting, regularly interviewing Chinese officials to accurately reflect their views in our work.”
Human-rights advocates, however, decried China’s treatment of Mr. Kovrig.
“That Chinese authorities see fit to detain people incommunicado and then refuse to provide information is a terrifying reality, though one that’s sadly long-standing,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.