Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says there is no question that China detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to apply “political pressure” on Canada to release a senior Huawei executive, pushing back at Beijing’s continued denial of any link between the cases.
His pointed remarks came hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued one of the strongest diplomatic condemnations of China’s actions so far and demanded that Beijing immediately release the two Canadians. Mr. Pompeo described the charges against them as “politically motivated and completely groundless” and a bid to “coerce Canada.”
Mr. Trudeau told reporters Monday that, “With the very first few days of the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Chinese officials were highlighting a link between the detention a week before of [Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou] and the arrest of the two Michaels.”
“It has been obvious from the beginning that this was a political decision made by the Chinese government, and we deplore it and have from the very beginning,” he said.
“This using of arbitrary detention as a means to advance political gains is something that is fully unacceptable in a world based on rules.”
Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were charged with espionage by Chinese authorities last week, a move that has escalated tensions between the West and China.
They were jailed by China in December, 2018, just a few days after Ms. Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on a U.S extradition request. She is accused of bank fraud in connection with the violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
The espionage charges against the two Canadians come just weeks after Ms. Meng failed in her first legal bid to strike down the extradition case against her.
China, however, continues to reject the suggestion that the treatment of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor is linked to Ms. Meng’s fate.
Mr. Trudeau was responding to questions Monday about comments from Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian earlier in Beijing. Mr. Zhao had urged the Canadian Prime Minister to “stop making irresponsible remarks” by suggesting that the jailing of the two men was retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest in Canada. He said the spying charges laid against Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are “completely different” and that “there is no such thing as arbitrary detention” in China.
Mr. Trudeau also said his government has no plans to intervene in the Meng extradition case and set her free in a prisoner exchange for the two Canadians. Former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley and Eddie Goldenberg, a former top aide to prime minister Jean Chrétien, have suggested trading Ms. Meng for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. Mr. Trudeau rejected this idea in January.
On Monday, he said intervening in the case would undermine Canada’s independent justice system.
“We’re not considering that. Canada has a strong and an independent justice system … anyone who is considering weakening our values or weakening the independence of our justice system doesn’t understand the importance of standing strong on our principles and our values,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo said his country is “extremely concerned” by Beijing’s decision to lay charges against Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor after keeping them in detention for more than a year and a half.
“These charges are politically motivated and completely groundless. The United States stands with Canada in calling on Beijing for the immediate release of the two men and rejects the use of these unjustified detentions to coerce Canada,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement.
Mr. Pompeo’s condemnation joins that of numerous governments around the world that have backed Canada’s demand for the men’s release. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted on the weekend that both his country and Canada “oppose arbitrary detention.” Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister Edgars Rinkevics said his country considers the accusations against the Canadians “baseless.”
Mr. Trudeau lauded countries and international organizations that have spoken out in support of the two men. “We want to thank all of our friends and allies around the world who have consistently and continually stepped up to highlight that this arbitrary detention of Canadian citizens is unacceptable and deeply concerning, not just to Canadians, but people all around the world who see China using arbitrary detentions as a means to political ends.”
Ms. Meng is out on bail and living in her two Vancouver mansions while her extradition proceedings work their way through the courts. Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor remain subject to interrogation in facilities with 24-hour lighting. They have not been allowed to see consular officials or their lawyers since January.
“Additionally, we echo Canada’s call for immediate consular access to its two citizens, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as China has prohibited such access for almost six months, and the world has no knowledge of the two Canadians’ condition,” Mr. Pompeo said.
U.S. prosecutors have laid out an extensive case against Ms. Meng. China has released no details on what exactly Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are accused of doing.
The Trump administration has demanded the men’s release in the past, but Mr. Pompeo’s language Monday is stronger than previous statements. After a meeting with then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland in Washington shortly after the arrests, Mr. Pompeo said “the unlawful detention of two Canadian citizens is unacceptable” and called on China to let them go.
At an Oval Office meeting last year, U.S. President Donald Trump told Mr. Trudeau that he would “help Canada.” Mr. Trump later raised the matter with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
Beyond rhetoric, though, the Trump administration has not laid out any consequences for China if it continues detaining Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
With a report from Marieke Walsh in Ottawa
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.