Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, has slammed China’s “political” detention of two Canadians, accusing Beijing of holding the pair on spying charges in retaliation for his country’s arrest of a top executive from Chinese telecoms company Huawei.
His comments on Monday came after China began prosecuting ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, for “suspected spying on state secrets” and gathering “intelligence for overseas interests” – charges that could result in life imprisonment.
Beijing’s move followed a Canadian ruling that the case of Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is fighting extradition to the United States, can go forward.
Relations between Canada and China have hit rock bottom over the cases.
At his daily briefing on Monday, Trudeau said Chinese officials “highlight that there is an obvious link” between Spavor and Korig’s detention in December 2018 with Meng’s arrest earlier a few days earlier.
“They made those links from the very beginning and continue to put political pressure on Canada through that detention,” he said. “This using of arbitrary detentions as a means to advance political gains is something that is fully unacceptable in a world based on rules.”
Spavor, 44, is a businessman with ties to North Korea, while Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation that focuses on conflict resolution.
China maintains the detentions are not linked to Meng, but has warned Canada it could face consequences for helping the US with her case. It has also blocked billions of dollars’ worth of Canadian agricultural exports.
In Beijing, a spokesman for the foreign ministry told Trudeau to “stop making irresponsible remarks”, saying the spying charges were “completely different” from the case of Meng.
“There is no such thing as arbitrary detention,” said Zhao Lijian. “China urges the relevant Canadian leader to earnestly respect the spirit of the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks.”
Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies and the daughter of its founder, is accused of lying to banks in Hong Kong about Huawei’s dealings with Iran in a possible violation of US sanctions.
Meng’s case is a “seriously political incident” and part of US efforts to “suppress Chinese high-tech enterprises and Huawei,” Zhao said. He said Canada “played the role of an accomplice”.
“We strongly urge Canada to correct its mistakes as soon as possible, immediately release Meng Wanzhou and ensure her safe return to home,” said Zhao.
Meng is living in a mansion she owns in Vancouver, while Kovrig and Spavor are being held at an undisclosed location and have been denied access to lawyers and family members.
Zhao said visits by foreign diplomats to prisoners had been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As the diplomatic spat intensified, Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp that Ottawa could be doing more for her husband, saying words were no longer enough.
“I’m interested in us being strong, but not antagonistic,” she said. “We cannot win a race to the bottom with China, we cannot become aggressive and confrontational because confrontation is not a strategy.”
It is “heartbreaking,” she added, knowing that Kovrig is languishing in a cell he described in letters to her and other family as a “concrete jungle”.
“Basically he has been confined to a single cell this entire time. He has not gone outside. He has not seen a tree or had fresh air to breathe for 560 days,” she said.
Nadjibulla said she had obtained a legal opinion that Canada’s justice minister could step in at any time to quash Meng’s extradition, but “whether the minister should act is a second question”.
Former senior Canadian officials have also proposed a prisoner swap of sorts, suggesting intervention in the extradition process to release Meng in exchange for the repatriation of the two Canadians.
But Trudeau rejected the idea.
“Obviously, there are tools in a government that exist that sometimes haven’t been used in a very, very long time,” he said during his briefing. “We are proceeding in a way that defends and upholds the independence of our judicial system, and we will not interfere politically in the unfolding of our rigorous, independent justice system.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called the charges against Kovrig and Spavor “politically motivated and completely groundless”.
“The United States stands with Canada in calling on Beijing for the immediate release of the two men and rejects the use of these unjustified detentions to coerce Canada,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Australia, Britain, France, Germany, the EU and others have also pressed China over the detention of the Canadians.