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Outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver in January, 2020, a man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The editor of a Communist Party-run newspaper says two Canadians arrested in China are likely to be in court shortly, a development that stands to further complicate efforts to advocate for their release.

Judicial authorities will launch a first trial “soon” for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote on Twitter on Thursday, citing an unnamed source. Mr. Hu is often a reliable source of information about China’s plans.

The Chinese government has not yet notified Canadian officials about a trial date, Global Affairs Canada said. Such notice is expected three days before they are brought to court.

“The Canadian government remains deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig since December, 2018, and continues to call for their immediate release.” spokesperson Christelle Chartrand said.

“There is no specific date yet for the trial,” Jing Yunchuan, Mr. Spavor’s counsel, said in an interview. “We are also waiting for notice from the court.”

Putting the two men on trial would further entrench them in the Chinese justice system and make it “a lot more difficult to extract the two Michaels,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China.

“If China decides to proceed now with the trial, I think it’s clearly because they want to push back on the various initiatives that have been launched by Canada,” he said. Those initiatives include the non-binding parliamentary vote to accuse China of committing genocide in its Xinjiang region and a Canadian government-led international declaration against hostage diplomacy, which Beijing is accused of in the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.

The prospect of a trial “means that, for all practical purposes, it will take a while before we see the two Michaels back, unfortunately,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have both been charged with espionage, a crime that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years but can in serious cases be punishable by life in prison.

Mr. Kovrig was charged in June, 2020, with spying on national secrets and intelligence for entities outside the territory of China. Mr. Spavor was charged with spying on national secrets and illegally providing state secrets to entities outside the territory of China.

Chinese courts, which are controlled by the Communist Party, boast a conviction rate of almost 100 per cent.

The prospect of a trial for the two men “is not surprising,” in part because Chinese law states that courts should in general hear cases within three months after a person has been formally charged, said Sida Liu, a scholar of sociology and law at the University of Toronto. Those timelines can, however, be extended with the approval of the Supreme People’s Court.

And Chinese courts can delay issuing a verdict for lengthy periods after court proceedings.

So a trial in the near future is likely “a political move to add pressure on both the Canadian and U.S. governments in the Meng Wanzhou case,” Prof. Liu said.

“As conviction rates in Chinese criminal trials are extremely high, once a trial begins, chances of a not-guilty verdict are slim, unless the prosecutors would withdraw the case before the trial concludes. In other words, the judicial clocks are ticking for the two Michaels now, and also for the rescue effort of the Canadian government.”

Ms. Meng, a Huawei executive, was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December, 2018. She is accused by U.S. prosecutors of bank fraud – an allegation she denies – and is fighting extradition from Canada. Her hearing is scheduled to end May 14.

“Are they timing the trial to coincide with some upcoming critical decision over Meng in Canada?” asked Donald Clarke, a specialist in modern Chinese law at George Washington University’s law school. “Would not surprise me if so.”

Still, he said, “I don’t think a conviction makes it harder or easier for China to let them go. If the government wants to let them go after a conviction, it could (for example) discover that they have a medical condition and release them for treatment in Canada. Obviously we’re not going to see an acquittal.”

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were seized by state security agents in China days after Ms. Meng’s arrest. They have now been held without trial or bail for 822 days.

Beijing has denied any connection between the cases, although most observers – in China and Canada alike – have said the arrests are linked.

Barring an intervention by the United States, whose justice authorities have sought to put Ms. Meng on trial, the two Canadians are likely to remain behind bars – and frictions with the world’s second-largest economy will continue, Mr. Saint-Jacques warned.

“Unless there is something that comes out of Washington to put pressure on Beijing to relent, I think that we will continue to be faced with years of difficult relations,” he said.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said he’s concerned by China’s apparent decision to hold what he called “sham trials” for the two men.

Mr. Chong said despite talk of renewed ties between Canada and the United States under new U.S. President Joe Biden, “the Prime Minister appears to have failed to secure an understanding to help obtain the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”

Mr. Chong pointed to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent comments to CBC News, in which he said the United States calls on China to release the two men “unconditionally.”

“From what I see of him, he uses his words very carefully,” Mr. Chong said. “That suggests the U.S. administration is not prepared to take any measures to secure their release.”

NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said apparent plans by China to hold “arbitrary trials” of the two men after two years is only going to draw more attention to the difference between their treatment and that of Ms. Meng.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor remain locked up in Chinese jails while Ms. Meng is free on bail during her court battle and living in her $10-million Vancouver mansion.

“It shines a bright light on the contrast between how Ms. Meng is being treated by Canada’s courts in an open procedure following international treaties and the rule of law and the situation facing Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor in China,” Mr. Harris said.

With a report from Alexandra Li

Michael Kovrig has been in Chinese detention since December, 2018, and has been even more isolated since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in China. In June, The Globe spoke with his wife Vina Nadjibulla, who is spearheading efforts to have Mr. Kovrig released and returned to Canada.

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