Eighteen months after their arrest, Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been charged with espionage by the Chinese regime.
They could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted, although their freedom actually depends on the fate of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested by Canada and held for extradition to the United States shortly before Spavor and Kovrig were taken hostage.
Of course, the Chinese government denies taking the men hostage, but the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) noticed they were finally charged with “foreign espionage” and “providing state secrets” just a few weeks after Meng’s last challenge to her extradition proceedings failed. Meng is wanted in the U.S. on charges of fraud and evading sanctions against Iran.
The HKFP described relations between Canada and China as hitting “rock bottom,” since not only were Spavor and Kovrig held without charges for a year and a half, but there is good reason to fear for their health:
Monthly consular visits for Kovrig and Spavor had been suspended since the coronavirus outbreak started in China, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in April, amid concerns for their deteriorating health.
But China’s foreign ministry has insisted the pair are in good health, and that their detention facility was “in a region that is not particularly affected by COVID-19”.
However, people familiar with the matter have told AFP the two have endured hours of interrogation and in the first six months of detention were forced to sleep with the lights on.
China’s state-run Global Times on Friday insisted there is “abundant evidence” against the two Canadians, and efforts to “politicize” their cases by linking them with Meng’s are “baseless accusations” that are “confusing right with wrong.”
The Chinese Communist paper then immediately linked the two cases by warning Canada to “think twice about colluding with others to sabotage China’s interest.”
The New York Times saw the charges as “escalating Beijing’s punitive campaign against Canada” and quoted denunciations of the Chinese action from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), that called China’s treatment of Spavor and Kovrig “absolutely chilling.”
“For the past one and half years, they have been denied access to families or lawyers. Instead of prosecuting Spavor and Kovrig on bogus espionage charges, Chinese authorities should release them immediately,” said HRW researcher Yaqiu Wang.
Canada’s Globe and Mail noted the charges represent a distinct escalation, because until they were filed Chinese prosecutors could have simply dropped the case and let them go.
“The statistics that are available make clear that once a case – especially a case involving state security charges – progresses to this stage, a trial is almost inevitable and unfortunately conviction is pretty much certain,” explained Joshua Rosenzweig of Amnesty International.
Rosenzweig said the Spavor and Kovrig cases have been “plagued by obvious violations to their rights to a fair trial,” and the length of time they have been incarcerated before charges were filed “flies in the face of international standards.” He added that foreigners living in China might want to “reassess the risks” they face.
Former Canadian diplomat Gordon Houlden added that China made it very difficult to unilaterally release the two men by filing formal charges, since letting them go now would “underline that it is a political decision to arrest them and release them.”
Zhang Dongshuo, a lawyer representing another Canadian held by China named Robert Schellenberg, told foreign observers not to expect anything they would recognize as a fair and open legal proceeding against Spavor or Kovrig.
“It’s very likely the trial won’t proceed openly, there will be no observers and the verdict and case information won’t be made public, either,” he warned.
The UK Guardian noted the conviction rate under China’s court system is about 99 percent, and Chinese officials refused to rule out the death penalty for their Canadian hostages.
The South China Morning Post noted there is a North Korean angle to the story since Spavor is a businessman noted for his interest in “reconciliation between North Korea and the world and between the two Koreas,” as a friend put it. Spavor began visiting North Korea in 2001 and has arranged numerous cultural exchanges and investments. He has personally met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and was instrumental in organizing former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s meetings with Kim six years ago.
Spavor is being prosecuted in China’s province of Dandong near the North Korean border, where his Paektu Cultural Exchange organization is headquartered. The exchange was offering North Korean tourist packages at the time of Spavor’s arrest.
Other North Korean peace activists denounced Canada’s efforts to free Spavor as “miserable” and described China’s espionage charges against him as ridiculous, not least because while Spavor is fluent in Korean, he does not speak or read Chinese.