A former Canadian diplomat now working for a non-profit organization has been detained by Beijing in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior executive with the flagship Chinese technology company Huawei.
The Globe and Mail has confirmed with the Canadian government that Michael Kovrig has been detained in China. Mr. Kovrig worked as a diplomat in the Canadian embassies in Beijing, Hong Kong and the United Nations, and has worked for the International Crisis Group (ICG) since February, 2017.
He was detained on Monday night, a person familiar with the matter told The Globe. Mr. Kovrig’s family declined comment.
The ICG on Wednesday said it had received no information from Chinese officials about the detention of Mr. Kovrig, and that it was seeking consular access to him.
Separately, Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa intensified its criticism of Canada for arresting Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the United States. The embassy said her Dec. 1 detention while changing planes in Vancouver amounts to a “political conspiracy” to undermine the Shenzen-based telecom-equipment giant and dismissed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that he had no role in the high-profile case.
American prosecutors want Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, extradited to the United States, alleging she committed fraud in 2013 by misleading American financial institutions about her company’s links to a Hong Kong firm doing business in Iran, opening the banks to risk of violating U.S. sanctions. On Tuesday, a B.C. judge granted Ms. Meng $10-million bail.
A statement from Canada’s Global Affairs department did not identify Mr. Kovrig, but said: “We are aware of the detention of a Canadian citizen in China. We have raised this case directly with Chinese authorities. The Canadian government is seized with this case and will continue to speak with the Chinese government. We are providing consular assistance to the family of the Canadian.”
Mr. Trudeau, asked by reporters about Mr. Kovrig Tuesday afternoon, said Ottawa is taking the situation “very seriously."
The ICG said in a statement on its website that it was doing “everything possible” to find out Mr. Kovrig’s whereabouts and to secure his release. The organization is devoted to conflict resolution and prevention.
Mr. Kovrig is currently on leave without pay from Global Affairs Canada, which means he technically remains a federal employee. However he does not have diplomatic immunity because he is not currently accredited to an embassy, a government official confirmed. At the ICG he has authored reports on North Korea and other northeast Asia security matters. He is also a frequent media commentator, including for The Globe.
Mr. Kovrig’s detention comes little more than a week after Canada arrested Ms. Meng.
The Chinese embassy declined to comment on the Kovrig detention. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale would not publicly draw any connection between the arrested Canadian and Ms. Meng, saying: “There is no explicit indication of that at this point.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland refused to link Mr. Kovrig’s detention to Ms. Meng’s case.
However, she said Mr. Kovrig’s case was a top priority. “When it comes to consular cases ... particularly of our own detained abroad ... these are people, these are compatriots ... we have a duty of care," she said.
“We’ve been in touch with Mr. Kovrig’s family."
On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa said it did not believe the Trudeau government played no role in the apprehension of Ms. Meng and accused the Canadian and American governments of persecuting Huawei.
“This is not an ordinary judicial case, but a political conspiracy,” the embassy said in a statement to The Globe. “It is a political persecution against Chinese enterprise and [a] Chinese citizen. When the Canadian side professed that there was no political involvement or interference in detaining Ms. Meng, such remarks per se [were] a political posture.”
Mr. Trudeau has acknowledged he knew days in advance of the pending arrest of Ms. Meng, but maintains there was no political involvement and the decision was made by officials in anada’s Justice Department at the request of U.S. law-enforcement agencies.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Mr. Kovrig’s arrest appears to tit-for-tat retribution for Canada’s treatment of Ms. Meng.
“It appears he is a very unfortunate victim of Chinese retaliation,” he said of Mr. Kovrig.
He also criticized the Chinese government’s characterization of Ms. Meng’s treatment as a “political conspiracy,” calling it “both outrageous and irresponsible.” He said what is happening to Ms. Meng now is a “textbook example of due process” that China should respect.
“Ms. Meng has a top-quality lawyer. She is having her days in court. She understands the procedures. The media is covering it. Pro-Meng demonstrations are tolerated. … Instead of condemning it, China should perhaps try to learn from it,” Mr. Mulroney said.
The U.S. government immediately raised concerns about the Canadian’s detention. Robert Palladino, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, urged China to “end all forms of arbitrary detention.”
Mr. Kovrig lives in Hong Kong but is often in China, where he had travelled extensively as a diplomat, he said on his LinkedIn profile.
His job as a diplomat in Beijing was under Canada’s Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP), which was established by Canada’s Foreign Ministry after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. GSRP officers do not work in intelligence, according to a 2007 Senate report. But they “are dedicated to the collection of information related to questions of strategic stability and security.”
In his job at the embassy, Mr. Kovrig engaged in “political reporting that I would qualify as sensitive, and he was travelling around China,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, who worked with Mr. Kovrig for three years. “Of course, all this was just good political reporting. It had nothing to do with spying.”
However, he said the GSRP program is “a bit controversial, because in some countries they don’t make the distinction between spying and doing legitimate political reporting. And of course if you ask some Chinese officials, in their view this constituted spying that he was doing.”
He said it seems Mr. Kovrig was detained in relation to the arrest of Ms. Meng. It would be likely that Chinese officials are thinking, “Well, you know, maybe we can do a deal here.“
However, with a judicial process under way in Canada for Ms. Meng “it’s impossible for the Canadian government to think about making a deal,” he said.
“This is a demonstration of how nasty the Chinese can be, how brutal they can be,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said. “There will have to be lessons learned among our political masters about the type of people we are dealing with.”
Observers drew parallels with other Canadians detained in the midst of extradition proceedings against a Chinese citizen.
In August, 2014, Chinese police seized Kevin and Julia Garratt, a Canadian couple who ran a coffee shop near the North Korean border on trumped up spying charges. It’s widely believed they were apprehended as reprisal against Canada for the arrest of Chinese citizen Su Bin in British Columbia. Mr. Su was sentenced in the United States to nearly four years in prison for his role in organizing the hacking of technical data on military aircraft.
Mr. Garratt was detained for 750 days before being found guilty of stealing state secrets and illegally providing them to overseas entities. He was then deported. Ms. Garratt was detained for six months.
With reports from Adrian Morrow in Washington and Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa