China to open first trial of Canadians held on 'spy' charges for over 2 years

Published on Mar 19, 2021 08:15 AM IST

Court hearing for Michael Spavor would be held Friday, and one for Michael Kovrig would follow on Monday. The two were arrested in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior Chinese telecom executive.

A file photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping applauding during the closing session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing. (AP/ FILE)
A file photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping applauding during the closing session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing. (AP/ FILE)
AP | | Posted by Karan Manral

China was expected to open the first trial Friday for one of two Canadians who have been held for more than two years in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior Chinese telecom executive.

Canada said its consular officials were not given permission to attend the proceedings despite several requests. They have been notified that a court hearing for Michael Spavor would be held Friday, and one for Michael Kovrig would follow on Monday.

China has not publicly confirmed the court dates, and calls to the court in Dandong, the northeastern city where Spavor was charged, went unanswered.

Sidewalks were roped off with police tape and journalists were kept at a distance as police cars and vans with lights flashing entered the the court complex, located beside the Yalu River that divides China from North Korea.

The Canadian Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission Jim Nickel knocked on a door to the court seeking entry but was refused. He was told the trial would begin at 10 a.m. but was given no word on how long it would last or when a verdict would be announced.

Another 10 diplomats from eight countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, stood on the street opposite the courthouse in a show of support.

International and bilateral treaties required that China provide Canadian diplomats access to the trial, but the court said Chinese law regarding trials on state security charges overrode such obligations, Nickel said.

“The official notification received from Chinese authorities indicated that these trials are closed to both the public and the media," Canada Global Affairs spokesperson Christelle Chartrand said on Thursday.

Spavor and Kovrig were detained in December 2018, days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the U.S. at the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia. The U.S. is seeking her extradition to face fraud charges related to her company’s dealings with Iran.

The two Canadians have been held ever since, while Meng has been released on bail. They were charged in June 2020 with spying under China’s national security laws.

Spavor, an entrepreneur with North Korea-related business, was charged with spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets. Kovrig, an analyst and former diplomat, was charged with spying for state secrets and intelligence in collaboration with Spavor.

Prosecutors have not released details of the charges and trial proceedings in national security cases are generally held behind closed doors. The state-owned Global Times newspaper said Kovrig was accused of having used an ordinary passport and business visa to enter China to steal sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017, while Spavor was accused of being a key source of intelligence for Kovrig.

In Vancouver on Thursday, Meng’s lawyers told an extradition hearing Canadian officials abused their power when they conspired with the U.S. to arrest her. Defense lawyer Tony Paisana said Canadian Border Services Agency officers took Meng’s phones, obtained their passwords, then handed to them to Canadian police so the data could be shared with the FBI.

Paisana said Meng was never told during questioning that she faced an arrest warrant in the U.S. and would have immediately asked for a lawyer if so informed. British Columbia Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes suggested border officers would have questioned Meng more rigorously if their exam was actually a covert criminal investigation, as her lawyers said.

China has demanded Meng’s immediate and unconditional release, saying the U.S. engineered her detention as part of a drive to contain China’s growing rise. Canadian authorities say Kovrig and Spavor were arbitrarily arrested to put pressure on Ottawa and say they should be released without charge.

China has also restricted various Canadian exports, including canola oil seed, and handed death sentences to another four Canadians convicted of drug smuggling.

Outside the courthouse, Nickel said Canada still held hope that Spavor and Kovrig could be released through joint efforts with the U.S., whose Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are currently holding their first face-to-face talks with China's top diplomats in Anchorage, Alaska.

“So we're hopeful that, in some measure, this trial may too lead to their immediate release," Nickel said.

___

Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto and Jim Morris in Vancouver, British Columbia contributed to this report.

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