Michael Spavor: Canada criticises China after trial held in secret

Canadian diplomat among officials denied access to court for espionage trial, which ended without a verdict

China held a secret one-day trial on Friday of the Canadian businessman Michael Spavor, who has been detained for more than two years in China along with a compatriot in what their government describes as “hostage diplomacy”.

The trial on charges of espionage lasted just a few hours. The verdict was not immediately released, but Chinese courts have a conviction rate of 99%.

Diplomats from eight countries including Canada, the US and the UK had travelled to the north-eastern city of Dandong for the trial in a “gesture of solidarity”, but were all denied access to the court.

“We are disappointed in the lack of access and the lack of transparency,” Jim Nickel, the charge d’affaires at the Canadian embassy in China, said before the hearing.

“The reason that has been given is it’s a so-called national security case and their belief is that the domestic law overrides international law, which in fact is not the case. China does have international obligations to allow consular access.”

Spavor was arrested in December 2018 along with Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who is due to go on trial on Monday in Beijing.

Their detention came soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese tech firm Huawei and the daughter of its founder, on a US warrant.

Meng is still in Canada, fighting extradition to the US on charges that the company violated sanctions on Iran. Chinese authorities deny any link between the cases, but Canada has been clear its citizens were seized in retaliation.

The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said this month that the two men faced “trumped-up charges” linked to Meng’s arrest. “Chinese officials at the time were very clear that they were absolutely connected as a frame,” he said.

Jim Nickel, Charge d’affaires of the Canadian embassy in China, is joined by other foreign diplomats outside the Intermediate People’s Court where Michael Spavor was tried on Friday.
Jim Nickel, charge d’affaires of the Canadian embassy in China, is joined by other foreign diplomats outside the Dandong intermediate people’s court where Michael Spavor was tried on Friday.
Photograph: Carlos García Rawlins/Reuters

Spavor and his lawyer appeared at the hearing but were not seen outside the court.

The two men have been refused bail and have had little contact with the outside world since their detention. Consular visits were halted for most of 2020, which authorities said was because of the pandemic, although Covid-19 has largely been contained in China.

Virtual visits resumed in October, and Canadian officials last saw Spavor on 3 February. Multiple requests to speak to him before the trial were denied.

Spavor’s family called for the unconditional release of Spavor and Kovrig. “Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman who has done extraordinary things to build constructive ties between Canada, China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” they said. “He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said on Friday that cases involving state secrets were not open to the public.

The trial dates were announced by Canada just as the US and China were preparing to hold high-level talks in Alaska – the first since Joe Biden took office – which have proven to be contentious.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the timing of the trials was clearly designed to coincide with the talks between the US and China, which wants to pressure the Biden administration to arrange for Meng’s release.

“It’s fair to say that at this stage the solution has to come from Washington … [Canada] is stuck in this geopolitical game that is going on between the United States and China,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday. “We are in a very tough position because in fact unfortunately at this stage there is nothing that the Canadian government can do.”

Observers have said convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby they are released and sent back to Canada.


Emma Graham-Harrison and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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