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As U.S. and China meet, China to try jailed Canadians viewed as bargaining chips

Protesters hold photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are detained in China, outside a court in Vancouver in 2019. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)
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As top U.S. officials meet with their Chinese counterparts Thursday in Alaska, Chinese courts are preparing to decide the fates of two Canadians held in China for more than two years in a case critics have called “hostage diplomacy.”

Canada’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it had been notified that business executive Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig — detained in China in December 2018, days after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver — would be put on trial on Friday and Monday.

The hearing for Spavor on Friday in the northeastern city of Dandong will follow the summit between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomats Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi.

Spavor and Kovrig — known as “the two Michaels” — have been held without bail or sunlight for nearly 830 days. Their detention is widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s 2018 arrest of Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, at the behest of U.S. officials seeking her extradition on fraud charges related to the company’s dealings in Iran. It poses one of the biggest challenges to resetting ties between China and the United States, as well as between Beijing and Ottawa.

“The timing cannot be a coincidence,” said Margaret Lewis, an expert in Chinese law and professor at Seton Hall University. “It highlights the connection between the Michaels and Meng Wanzhou.”

Kovrig, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, is charged with spying on state secrets. Spavor was charged with stealing and giving state secrets to other countries. China formally laid those charges in June 2020, 18 months into their detention, and has not provided any evidence against them. Both could face life in prison.

“This has been going on for 830 days and this is a significant marker in that process,” Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, told The Washington Post. “It’s difficult on a personal level, and I’m particularly worried about how it will impact Michael to be receiving and processing this news alone, while we have the benefit of friends and family to make sense of the news here.”

Escalating Huawei feud, China indicts two Canadians in spying case

Experts in Chinese law said they expected the proceedings to last no longer than a few days. It was unlikely that Spavor or Kovrig would be found not guilty, they said, given China’s highly politicized courts and conviction rate of nearly 100 percent. Politically sensitive cases are usually held behind closed doors, with verdicts often handed down within a few hours.

Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said Wednesday that Canada remained “deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christelle Chartrand said Canada had made several requests to attend the trials but has not been given permission.

Donald Clarke, who specializes in Chinese law at George Washington University, said barring Canadian officials from the proceedings would be a clear breach of the consular agreement between the two countries.

It was possible the verdicts could be delayed or announced later, depending on the outcome of the talks in Alaska, according to a diplomat familiar with the cases.

“In this case, the verdict is not really in question,” Clarke said. “There’s lots of ways that you can let people out of prison once they’re convicted if they have the political desire.”

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the detentions with President Biden during a bilateral meeting last month. Biden mentioned Kovrig and Spavor by name in a news conference following the meeting and pledged to work with Canada to secure their release.

“Human beings are not bartering chips,” he said.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, pushed back on such criticism, saying China’s courts were handling the cases “independently and in accordance with the law, while fully protecting the legal rights of the persons involved.”

Ahead of the talks in Anchorage — the first face-to-face meeting between the Biden administration and top Chinese officials — the United States signaled it would continue some elements of former president Donald Trump’s hard-line approach toward China.

Blinken on Wednesday announced sanctions on 24 Hong Kong and Chinese officials in response to Beijing’s imposition of a controversial national security law in Hong Kong. The administration also served subpoenas on unnamed Chinese companies over possible national security risks.

Canada arrested Huawei’s Meng for the United States. As China retaliates, it’s on its own.

“This has not gone unnoticed,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “China is sending a clear message with the date of the trials: If China doesn’t get what it wants, neither will the United States.”

Beijing moderated expectations for the Alaska meeting, signaling that it, too, would maintain a tough stance. China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told Chinese media he did not have “overly high expectations.”

“We don't count on a single dialogue to solve all problems between China and the U.S.,” he said, in comments posted on the embassy’s website. “China didn’t come all the way to Alaska to make compromises.”

By doubling down ahead of the meeting with the trials of the two Michaels, Kassam said, Beijing is also hoping to intimidate countries away from aligning with the United States.

“The tragic consequences of this downward spiral in U.S.-China relations is that there is no end in sight for the arbitrary detention of two Canadians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

The detention of the two Canadians has been a foreign policy nightmare for Trudeau, who came to power in 2015 hoping to deepen economic ties with China.

Now he’s facing criticism from all sides. Opposition lawmakers want him to take a more aggressive line against Beijing. But several high-profile Canadians, including former foreign ministers, urged him in a letter last year to release Meng in the hope that it would spur China to free the two Michaels.

Trudeau flatly rejected those calls, saying it would send the message that arbitrarily detaining Canadians is an effective way to gain leverage over Ottawa.

A new phase of Meng’s extradition hearings began last month. She is out on $8 million bail at the larger of her two Vancouver mansions. The two Michaels have been largely cut off from the world and their families. They have sometimes been permitted monthly visits with Canadian consular officials.

“The developments of the last couple of days . . . are another stark reminder that real human lives are on the line here,” Nadjibulla said. “Time is running out, and we need urgent action from all parties involved to bring an end to their detention and to bring them home.”

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