The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canadian analyst held in China is kept in a cell with lights always on

Michael Kovrig, an adviser with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, speaks during an interview in Hong Kong on March 28. (AP)

BEIJING — Michael Kovrig, one of two Canadians detained in China, is being kept in a cell with the lights on 24 hours a day, according to a person familiar with his situation, in what is being seen as an act of Chinese retaliation against Canada for the arrest of an influential executive.

Kovrig has also been denied access to a lawyer and will be allowed only one consular visit a month, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive situation. 

Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat in Beijing who has been China analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank for the last two years, and Michael Spavor, who lives in Dandong and promotes exchanges with North Korea, were both detained Dec. 10 on suspicion of endangering China’s national security. 

They were arrested while a Canadian court was considering whether to allow Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, to be released on bail after arresting her Dec. 1 at the United States’ request. She is wanted for extradition to New York to face fraud charges relating to the company’s alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran. 

Analysts said the timing of the arrests left little doubt that they were politically motivated and acts of reprisal for the arrest of Meng, the scion of one of China’s most internationally successful companies. 

Kovrig was detained by plainclothes officers in Beijing at 10 p.m. on Dec. 10, the person said. He is now being held at an undisclosed location and is not allowed access to a lawyer or loved ones or to apply for bail.

The conditions of Kovrig’s detention contrast starkly with those of Meng, who was released Dec. 11 on $7.4 million bail after a multiday court hearing, in which she was represented by high-powered lawyers and observed by throngs of journalists. She is now staying at one of her luxury homes in Vancouver while awaiting the outcome of her extradition proceedings, which could take many months.

Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, visited Kovrig on Friday, in line with the agreement between the two nations that stipulates consular visits must take place within 48 hours of being requested.

McCallum met Kovrig at a police station, not at the place where he is being detained. Kovrig told the ambassador that he is being interrogated morning, afternoon and evening, and that the lights in his cell are always on, said the person, who described Kovrig as tired and stressed. Kovrig will not be allowed a consular visit for another month.

Chinese authorities are able to keep suspects in secret locations for up to six months — without access to a lawyer — as they gather evidence under a system called “residential surveillance at a designated location.” Those who have experienced the ordeal have described intense interrogation sessions and, on occasion, beatings and torture as authorities seek confessions that can be used in court or for propaganda purposes.

There is no indication that Kovrig has been beaten, although sleep deprivation through incessant lighting is classified as a form of torture.

Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist, was held in such a jail near Beijing under similar circumstances for 23 days in 2016. After his release, he described similar interrogation and sleep-deprivation tactics. 

McCallum was allowed on Dec. 16 to see Spavor, another detained Canadian expatriate, in Dandong on the North Korean border, but no details of Spavor’s detention have emerged.

Gerry Shih contributed to this report.

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