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Chinese court sentences Canadian Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison

Michael Spavor, seen in an image from video in China in 2017, was detained in December 2018 as Beijing retaliated against Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. (AP)

A Chinese court on Wednesday sentenced Canadian businessman Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison, in a case widely seen as retribution for Canada’s arrest of a senior Huawei executive wanted by the United States.

The Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong City said that Spavor was sentenced to the prison time for espionage and transferring state secrets overseas. The trial was held in March, but the judgment was not released until now, as the extradition hearing of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou enters a crucial stretch in Canada.

Spavor will be able to appeal the judgment to a higher-level court in China, and it may be years before a final decision.

Spavor and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig were detained in China at the end of 2018, days after Meng was arrested in Canada at the behest of the United States on fraud charges linked to Huawei’s business in Iran. The cases of the “Two Michaels” — as they are called in Canada — and Meng have significantly strained relations between Ottawa and Beijing.

Huawei extradition fight enters crucial phase for CFO Meng Wanzhou — and for the Chinese tech giant

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the judgment against Spavor “absolutely unacceptable and unjust” in a statement on Wednesday, saying the trial “did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law.”

“Our top priority remains securing their immediate release,” Trudeau said. “We will continue working around the clock to bring them home as soon as possible.”

Kovrig’s closed-door trial was held in March, like Spavor’s, with a judgment yet to be issued.

A third Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, was sentenced to death for drug smuggling by a Chinese court in a January 2019 retrial, weeks after Meng’s detention. His appeal was denied by a higher court on Tuesday, which said the earlier judgment was sound and the death sentence an appropriate punishment.

Spavor’s family said in a statement that they disagreed with the charges but that “we realize that this is the next step in the process to bring Michael home and we will continue to support him through this challenging time.”

The cases of Spavor and Kovrig have sparked widespread concern in Western nations over “hostage diplomacy” amid the sprawling U.S.-China conflict, with business executives debating whether travel to China is still worth the risks. The United States, Canada and other countries have warned their citizens of the heightened risk of arbitrary detention in China.

Beijing has accused Spavor and Kovrig of spying, charges that Canadian officials say are baseless and an attempt to pressure Canada to release Meng. Specifics of the charges against the two Canadians remain hazy, with Chinese authorities invoking national security in holding closed-door trials this year.

The court in Dandong also said Wednesday that about $7,700 worth of personal property will be confiscated from Spavor and that he will be deported from China after completing his sentence.

Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, said Tuesday that the movement on the Canadians’ cases in China appeared linked in timing to Meng’s extradition hearing, which may proceed until Aug. 20.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is happening now while events are going on in Vancouver,” Barton said in a call with reporters.

Spavor lived in northeastern China near the border with North Korea and worked to promote exchanges with the isolated country. Kovrig was working for the International Crisis Group think tank at the time of his arrest.

In 2019, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a statement alleging that Kovrig “had spied on and stolen sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China” and calling Spavor a “key intelligence contact” of Kovrig’s.

In the Schellenberg case, Barton said Canada condemned the judgment “in the strongest possible terms” and called for China to grant him clemency. Canada abolished the death penalty decades ago.

Schellenberg’s lawyer in China, Zhang Dongshuo, said he was preparing for a review of the case by the Supreme People’s Court. That court has the discretion to give Schellenberg prison time instead of a death sentence.

“There is still a chance for the punishment to be changed to a lighter one,” Zhang said.

China’s mission to the European Union dismissed European officials’ criticism of the Schellenberg judgment on Tuesday, calling it “reckless interference” in China’s internal affairs, and saying China will not be swayed by it.

China begins trial of jailed Canadians viewed as bargaining chips

John Kamm, who established the Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for individuals detained in China, said his team reviewed nearly 1,300 death penalty cases and found that the Supreme People’s Court overturned about 10 percent of them. However, the court has stopped making case records public, so outsiders find it hard to understand how recent cases have been handled, he said.

Advocates for Spavor and Kovrig have highlighted the disparity between their living conditions in Chinese prisons and Meng’s under house arrest in Canada, as they await the end of their criminal proceedings. Meng has been living in a seven-bedroom mansion in Vancouver, going on shopping trips to designer stores, and she has been able to receive visits from family members and friends while the extradition hearing proceeds. Spavor and Kovrig have been held in cramped cells in separate prisons since their arrest, and they have been allowed only a handful of calls with family members and 25 visits each from consular officials.

Kamm said the fates of the three Canadians may be tied to Meng’s.

“Of course they haven’t said in so many words,” he said. “But if, in fact, the extradition process yields a result they want, which is her return, I suspect that they would treat the Canadian citizens more leniently.”

Amanda Coletta and Pei Lin Wu contributed to this report.

Huawei extradition fight enters crucial phase for CFO Meng Wanzhou — and for the Chinese tech giant

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