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Trial opens of Canadian accused of spying on China

March 22, 2021

With diplomats denied access to Michael Kovrig's trial on alleged national security grounds, Ottawa has accused Beijing of engaging in "hostage diplomacy." Businessman Michael Spavor faced similar spying charges Friday.

Chinese authorities detained Michael Kovrig in 2018 and only formally charged him with espionage in June, 2020
Chinese authorities detained Michael Kovrig in 2018 and only formally charged him with espionage in June, 2020Image: Reuters/Crisis Group/J. de Lossy

A former Canadian diplomat accused of spying on China appeared in court on Monday in a behind-closed-doors trial in Beijing.

Chinese authorities detained Michael Kovrig in 2018 and only formally charged him with espionage in June.

The charges were handed out at the same time as similar accusations were made against Canadian businessman Michael Spavor.

The hearing comes just days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised both cases during tense talks with senior Chinese diplomats in Alaska.

Kovrig, a fluent Mandarian speaker, served Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and Hong Kong from 2012-16.  

The 49-year-old also worked for the International Crisis Group think tank.

"Michael and Michael Spavor are innocent Canadians caught up in a bigger geopolitical dispute," Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, told Reuters. 

"Their detention is profoundly unjust and our focus must remain on securing their freedom."

Spavor's trial, which was also held behind closed doors, ended on Friday after just two hours with no verdict.

Judges in the northern city of Dandong said they would issue their ruling at a later date.

Canada angry over secret trials 

Police cordoned off an area on Monday outside the courtroom as Canadian diplomats were denied entry and turned away.

"We're very troubled by the lack of access and lack of transparency in the legal process," said Jim Nickel, the charge d'affaires of the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

Court officials said access was not allowed because the trial is a national security case.

Authorities also denied diplomats and foreign reporters access to witness Spavor's case on Friday.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau branded the pair's treatment as "unacceptable".Image: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the two men's detention "completely unacceptable" and attacked "the lack of transparency" around the hearings.

It is the latest souring of ties between the two countries, which have clashed on human rights issues such as the treatment of the Uighurs and Hong Kong.

China's judicial system convicts most people who stand trial and the two men face up to life in prison if found guilty of "espionage" and "providing state secrets."

They have had almost no contact with the outside world since their detention, and virtual consular visits only resumed in October after a nine-month hiatus that authorities said was due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hostage diplomacy?

Canada accuses China of conducting "hostage diplomacy" over detained ex-Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who faces possible extradition to the US.

Beijing has dismissed those suggestions, insisting there is no link with Meng's legal woes.

Ex-Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou
Ex-Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is fighting extradition to the USImage: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/empics/picture-alliance

The US wants her on fraud charges over alleged business dealings with Iran in breach of current sanctions against Tehran.

In 2019, the founder of Huawei Ren Zhengfei — who is the father of Meng Wanzhou — claimed in an interview that her arrest was politically motivated.

jf/sri (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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