Michael Kovrig Accused of Harming National Security

Michael Kovrig Accused of Harming National Security

New reports suggest that Canadian Michael Kovrig is being held in Beijing on suspicion of harming national security. Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that citizen Michael Spavor, who reportedly knows Kovrig, has gone missing in China. Nathan Vanderklippe, Robert Fife, and Steven Chase of the Globe and Mail report:

Mr. Spavor lives in China, where he runs Paektu Cultural Exchange. He gained fame for helping arrange a visit to North Korea by former NBA player Dennis Rodman. Mr. Spavor met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on that trip.

It’s not clear what has happened to Mr. Spavor, or whether he is himself the subject of interest by Chinese authorities in what could be another reprisal from China over Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer . On Monday, Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat working as an analyst for the International Crisis Group, was seized in Beijing, not long after China threatened “serious consequences” in the case of Ms. Meng, who was released on $10-million bail on Tuesday.

Chinese police and state security have broad authority to detain and interrogate people they consider witnesses in criminal investigations. [Source]

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freehand referred to Spavor’s disappearance in a press conference earlier Wednesday:

International Crisis Group, Kovrig’s current employer, has said he was detained on Monday night by the Beijing bureau of state security. Later comments from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs imply that his detention is related to his work with the group, which the government says is not properly registered under the new Foreign NGO Law. Kovrig’s colleagues have insisted that he was not engaged in any work involving state secrets or espionage.

Reuters reports on coverage of his case from the official Beijing News:

“Our reporters have learned from the relevant departments that Canadian citizen Michael John Kovrig was detained by the Beijing Municipal State Security Bureau on December 10 in accordance with the law for allegedly engaging in activities that endangered China’s national security. The case is now under investigation,” the News said.

In a regular press conference, the Foreign Ministry said that he might have broken China’s foreign NGO law if he carried out certain activities for the group in China.

“My understanding is that ICG is not registered in China … If their staff conduct activities in China, he has violated the foreign non-government organisations law,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Wednesday. “China will handle the case in accordance with the law.”

[…] China’s foreign NGO law states that a 10-day detention could be imposed if an NGO carries out activities in China without being registered, but criminal prosecution could follow if those activities involved state secrets. [Source]

If the Chinese government formally cites the Foreign NGO Law in justifying Kovrig’s detention, it will be the first such case. Eighteen months after its implementation, only one percent of foreign NGOs had formally registered, due largely to the law’s opaque implementation and registration process. Christian Shepherd reports for Reuters:

It was the first time an official had raised the law in connection with a detention, even though he declined to comment on whether Kovrig had been charged.

“If the Overseas NGO Law was invoked as the reason for his detention, this would be a shot across the bow for the NGO community,” Shawn Shieh, an independent civil society expert, told Reuters.

The Ministry of Public Security appears to have avoided strictly enforcing the new law, in order to allow NGOs time to register, but if Kovrig is charged under the law, that would send a “clear signal to the NGO community that this could happen to others”, he said. [Source]

However, other observers remained more concerned by possible national security charges against Kovrig:

So far, the Chinese government has made very little information about the conditions or reasons for Kovrig’s arrest available to the Canadian government or to Kovrig’s family or employers. From The Associated Press:

It’s unclear that Canadian officials have been granted consular access to Kovrig, as required by an agreement in place between China and Canada. The Chinese are also required to inform Canadian officials of the reasons for his detention.

Canadian officials from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on down continue to repeat that the government is “seized” with this case and taking it very seriously. Officials are engaging with the Chinese and providing support to Kovrig’s family.

The Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua said Kovrig was questioned by the Beijing National Security Bureau on Tuesday. The government news organization said he was suspected of engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security. [Source]

Some have linked Kovrig’s detention with the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, saying that the former was carried out in retribution for the latter. In recent days, Meng’s bail hearing was widely covered by international media and she was released on bail on Wednesday. U.S. officials are asking for her extradition on fraud charges related to illegal trade with Iran in violation of U.S.-imposed sanctions. The Chinese government has condemned the Canadian government for Meng’s arrest, calling it a violation of human rights. Steven Lee Myers and Jane Perlez note the differences in treatment between the two cases in The New York Times:

The opacity surrounding Mr. Kovrig’s situation sharply contrasted the public proceedings that unfolded over three days in a Vancouver courtroom following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, the Chinese technology company that the United States has accused of violating sanctions against trade with Iran.

After three days of hearings, Ms. Meng was released on bail Tuesday evening, pending further court deliberations on whether she should be extradited to the United States. “I am in Vancouver and back to my family,” she wrote on Wednesday afternoon Beijing time in a post on Weibo, China’s social media platform. “I am proud of Huawei and I am proud of my motherland.” [Source]


Kovrig is one of a number of foreigners who have been detained in China in recent years. At The New York Times, Javier C. Hernández outlines some of the cases. In response to Kovrig’s detention, the U.S. and Canadian governments are considering issuing warnings for citizens traveling to China.

Canadian Julia Garratt, who spent several months in prison in China in 2014 on charges of spying and stealing state secrets, offered her perspective on Kovrig’s arrest to Nathan Vanderklippe at the Globe and Mail:

[…] China’s treatment of the Garratts offers a glimpse into the harsh contours of the system that Mr. Kovrig has now been thrust into.

They were kept in an isolated compound for six months and subjected to lengthy and repeated interrogation sessions. It was akin to “a hostage-taking, because you’re not in a facility where anyone knows where it is,” Ms. Garratt said. Authorities refused them access to a lawyer.

[…] But the couple say they hope their experience can also provide some reassurance to Mr. Kovrig’s relatives.

”It’s highly unlikely there would be any physical violence. That’s one thing the family can hold onto,” Ms. Garratt said.

“China will feed him. China will probably stick to six hours of interrogation a day. So it won’t be 24/7,” she said. Mr. Kovrig’s family ”just have to take hope in some of the small blessings, even though we know it’s going to be absolutely horrendous.” [Source]

See also a personal essay by journalist Joanna Chiu, a former Beijing correspondent now based in Vancouver, asking the world to pay attention to the arrest of her friend .

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