Fate of Accused Canadians Hinges on Huawei Heiress's Extradition

Canada’s decision will affect China’s treatment of alleged spies Kovrig and Spavor

In a case that is widely regarded as a heavy-handed attempt at intimidation of the Canadian government, the fates of two Canadians whom Chinese prosecutors accuse of espionage will depend on a Canadian court’s decision whether to extradite Huawei's chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou (above) to the United States.

The hearing on Meng’s extradition wrapped up in the Supreme Court of British Columbia on August 18. It is not known when Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes will decide whether to send her across the border. After Holmes makes her decision, the final decision on Meng’s extradition lies with the Canadian Justice Minister. If Meng is extradited, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are likely to spend years in Chinese prisons for what critics say are imaginary crimes.

Meng is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the founding chief executive officer of the major Chinese telecommunication technology firm Huawei, which is supported by the Chinese government. From 2018 to 2020, the US administration of then President Donald Trump blacklisted and slapped various sanctions on Huawei. The US authorities want Meng to stand trial for allegedly misleading HSBC on Huawei’s dealings in Iran and thus might have caused the bank to violate US sanctions against Tehran.

“In the absence of any breakthrough from the Canadian side, Kovrig could receive a devastating sentence,” a risk consultant told Asia Sentinel. “The fact that he has not yet received a verdict or sentence is a loud message to Canada to heed Beijing’s concerns that Canada has played the lapdog role to serve US interests and the result could be very damning for Kovrig.”

Kovrig and Spavor “were arrested at the same time for activities that took place between the two of them, according to Chinese officials. The order by which the cases were heard tells me that in the eyes of the Chinese Kovrig is the more serious fish in their net,” he added.

Only days after Meng was arrested in Vancouver, British Columbia, on 1 December 2018, Chinese authorities arrested Kovrig and Spavor for alleged espionage. On August 11, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined RMB50,000 (US$7,715) by the Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong, a city near North Korea. In a Chinese-language statement, the Dandong court said Spavor was guilty of spying and illegally passing on state secrets. The court added Spavor’s punishment also included deportation from China but did not specify a timeline.

The 11-year imprisonment of Spavor tells the Canadian government that if this is what Spavor is getting, “Kovrig will probably get much worse,” said a British consultant who declined to be named.

“The other message is that deportation of Spavor can happen anytime, so the Chinese are open to negotiations. The Chinese are not openly saying they are bargaining, but they are opening the door for bargaining,” the British consultant pointed out.

Canadian ambassador to China Dominic Barton, who was present at Spavor’s sentencing, linked the verdict to Meng's trial in Vancouver, telling reporters, "I don't take it as a coincidence that we have heard the verdicts of these two cases while that trial is going on.”

Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig

A source who knew Kovrig and Spavor described both men to Asia Sentinel.

“Kovrig is an exceptionally sharp guy. He’s got high EQ, he’s multi-lingual and his Chinese is fluent. He’s a consummate diplomat,” said the source. “Spavor’s a nice guy. He’s sociable but he’s not the stuff of spies. He has a degree of naivety about him,” the source revealed.

Spavor cultivated ties with businesspeople and mid-level officials in China, but in North Korea, he was close to senior officials at the cabinet level, the source said.

The risk consultant said, “Spavor has been 25 years in China and would obviously have been on China’s radar as he was known to have a personal relationship with North Korean leaders, and was back and forth across the (China-North Korean) border continuously.”

On August 10, a Chinese court also upheld the death sentence on a Canadian man, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, for smuggling drugs. Schellenberg originally was sentenced to 15 years in prison in late 2018, but his sentence was subsequently changed to the death penalty in January 2019, one month after Meng’s arrest.

Politicization of courts alleged

The sentencing of Schellenberg and Spavor was probably China’s retaliation for the arrest of Meng by the Canadian authorities, said a Canadian source who declined to be named.

“Chinese treatment of the two Canadians is according to Chinese law, which lacks transparency and due process,” the source added.

At a Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference in Beijing on August 12, Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman, said China is a country with rule of law and has fully guaranteed the legal rights of Spavor and Schellenberg.

"China's conviction and sentencing of Michael Spavor is absolutely unacceptable and unjust," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on August 11. "The verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process, and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law," Trudeau said.

The Dandong court did not publicly reveal more details of Spavor’s case.

At a press conference on March 3, Trudeau alleged, "It is obvious that the two Michaels were arrested on trumped-up national security charges days after we fulfilled our extradition treaty responsibilities toward our ally, the United States.”

The Chinese government echoed Trudeau’s claim that the arrests in both countries were politicized. At a Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference in Beijing on August 16, Hua alleged, “There are enough facts to show that the Meng Wanzhou incident is a political event through and through. The US's fraud accusations against Ms. Meng Wanzhou are nothing but fabrication.”

Trudeau and Canadian Minister of Justice David Lametti are under pressure from Beijing to disallow the extradition of Meng, but such a reversal would impact Canada’s longstanding extradition agreement with the US, the Canadian source noted.

“Trudeau has rightfully earned a notorious reputation during his tenure as a leader who waffles in front of difficult choices. However, in this case, China has cornered him into a tough spot. Popular Canadian sentiment is against Meng and anti-China,” the Canadian source added.

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