Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A police vehicle believed to be carrying Michael Spavor, a Canadian detained by China in December 2018 on suspicion of espionage, arrives at the Intermediate People's Court, where Spavor is expected to stand trial, in Dandong, Liaoning province, China on March 19, 2021.CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/Reuters

A Chinese court took two hours to conduct a secret trial for Michael Spavor on Friday, completing a hearing on charges punishable by life in prison by lunch time. The court declined to issue a verdict or sentencing, which in the Chinese system can be delayed for years, placing the incarcerated Canadian into a new period of uncertainty.

To those barred from the courtroom – including Canadian diplomats who had asserted a right to be present – Mr. Spavor was invisible, transported in vans with mirror-finish windows that blocked any view inside. The proceedings were similarly opaque. Chinese authorities have not made public any evidence against Mr. Spavor or Michael Kovrig, the other Canadian seized by security agents on Dec. 10, 2018, days after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport.

Nor did the court release any information about what happened inside. A brief statement said the trial took place with Mr. Spavor and his counsel, and that a verdict will be delivered “at a later date in accordance with the law.”

“Because the case involves state secrets, the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court of Liaoning Province, in accordance with the law, held a trial of Canadian defendant Michael Spavor in closed session,” the statement said.

Why are Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor being put on trial in China? A guide to the story so far

Canada looks to Biden to free two Michaels jailed in China

Jim Nickel, Canada’s charge d’affaires, expressed frustration outside the courthouse that Chinese authorities had kept out Canadian representatives, but declined comment on the administration of justice in the two-hour hearing.

“We were not present in the courtroom, so we have no idea what transpired,” he said.

“There is an obligation on the Chinese authorities’ part to admit consular officials to attend hearings of our citizens,” he added. “So we are disappointed in the lack of access and the lack of transparency of the process.”

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian cited Chinese law that bars observers from state secrets cases. “China’s judicial sovereignty is not subject to interference,” he said.

The country’s consular agreement with Canada, however, includes no exceptions to the right of a consular officer to attend a trial.

The trial for Michael Spavor took only two hours with no Canadian witnesses in the court and no information released by Chinese authorities. Jim Nickel, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Canadian embassy, was denied access and criticized the ongoing Chinese detention of Mr. Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

The Globe and Mail

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa on Friday called Canada’s criticism of its conduct on Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig “unwarranted comments” that are “fact distorting.”

And, while it denies there is any connection, Beijing’s diplomatic mission once again linked the incarceration of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig to the fate of Ms. Meng.

China’s diplomatic mission in Canada said that, contrary to what Canada has suggested, “China is a country of the rule of law” and that “China’s judicial authorities have been dealing with the cases independently and ensuring their lawful rights.”

“When it comes to arbitrary detention, Ms. Meng Wanzhou has been arbitrarily detained for over two years despite the fact that she hasn’t violated any Canadian law. This is arbitrary detention in every sense of the term.”

The embassy accused Canada of making “irresponsible remarks” and urged “Canada to immediately correct its mistakes and release Meng Wanzhou and ensure her safe return to China.”

Chinese authorities have charged Mr. Spavor with spying on national secrets and illegally providing state secrets to entities outside of the territory of China. A trial is scheduled to take place on Monday in Beijing for Mr. Kovrig, who is charged with spying on national secrets and intelligence for entities outside the territory of China. Chinese courts, which operate under the control of the Communist Party, have a conviction rate of nearly 100 per cent.

Mr. Spavor was on trial as senior U.S. and Chinese officials met for talks in Anchorage, Alaska, that began with an unusually acrimonious exchange in front of assembled media. Before the meeting, the White House had said its willingness to considerably improve relations with Beijing was based on China easing its pressure on U.S. allies.

The brevity of Mr. Spavor’s trial indicates certainty by the court about the charges, suggesting a light sentence is unlikely, said Margaret Lewis, a professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law whose research focuses on law in China and Taiwan.

Politically, the quick hearing “also demonstrates to me confidence in the message that: This is our court. This is our judicial system. We are calling the shots here. And we are not going to let outside pressure change what we do,” she said.

Police surrounded the Dandong courthouse with caution tape before Mr. Spavor’s arrival, keeping foreign media and diplomats from approaching, a signal “that the courthouse is a fortress and no one is getting in,” Prof. Lewis said. Ten diplomats from eight countries were there, in a show of support for Mr. Spavor, whose arrest has been widely described as hostage diplomacy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized China for holding the trial without allowing Canada access to the court or evidence.

“Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings,” he told reporters on Friday.

“One of the challenges around the lack of transparency on that process is it becomes extremely difficult to make judgments around whether or not the trial was fair.”

It is the second trial at the Dandong courthouse of a Canadian in similar circumstances in a half-decade.

Kevin Garratt was tried on state secrets charges in 2016. He was detained after the arrest of a Chinese citizen in Canada, Su Bin, for extradition to the United States. Mr. Garratt’s trial lasted a full working day.

In an interview, Mr. Garratt described being transported in handcuffs and leg irons, then ushered into a courtroom empty of observers. He was placed in the centre of the room, with three judges in front of him, prosecutorial staff to his left, his lawyer to his right and security guards behind.

He said he had thought the trial would give him a chance to argue his innocence.

“But then I realized it makes no difference. Everything is decided. This is a formality,” he said.

Much of his trial was made up of lawyers recounting summaries of previous interrogations, he said.

Mr. Garratt’s opportunities to speak were limited. He was not allowed to bring paper or pen, so he could not use written comments – and his pretrial preparation was a meeting with his lawyer the previous day.

On arrival and during lunch, he was held in a padded cell he likened to a closet. It was “very horrible,” he said.

Michael Kovrig has been in Chinese detention for 1,000 days since being detained in December 2018, and has been even more isolated since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in China. In June 2020, The Globe spoke with his wife Vina Nadjibulla, who is spearheading efforts to have Mr. Kovrig released and returned to Canada. Note: This video has been updated with the latest milestone of 1,000 days in detention.

The Globe and Mail

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe