Two Canadians Formally Charged with Espionage, Face Possible Death Penalty

Prosecutors in China have filed cases against two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on charges of spying. Both men were detained in December 2018, shortly after the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada. U.S. officials have requested the extradition of Meng on charges of fraud related to violations of a trade embargo with Iran. A Canadian court recently ruled that the extradition case can move forward, which had led many to anticipate retaliation in the form of harsh penalties on Kovrig and Spavor. is a former consular official who most recently worked as the Senior Adviser for North East Asia for the International Crisis Group, which today called for the charges against him to be dropped:

Michael Spavor lived in Dandong, near the North Korean border, and ran Paektu Cultural Exchange, an NGO that facilitated cultural and business ties with North Korea. The Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said last year that Spavor had provided intelligence to Kovrig. Both men have been denied access to lawyers or their families while in detention. James Griffiths of CNN reports on the recent charges:

The People’s Procuratorate of Beijing Municipality filed a prosecution against Kovrig on Friday for “for spying on and intelligence.” The People’s Procuratorate of Dandong also filed a public prosecution against Spavor for “spying on and illegally providing .”

[…] Speaking at a regular press conference Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the evidence against the two Canadians was “solid.”

“The facts are clear and evidence is solid he (Kovrig) should be held accountable for criminal responsibility,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a regular press briefing Friday.

Zhao added that the evidence against Michael Spavor was also “solid” and the “facts are clear.”

When asked about whether Kovrig and Spavor have had access to consular assistance during the coronavirus pandemic Zhao said: “During this pandemic to ensure the safety of the detainees we have been suspending consular visits, which will be resumed after the situation gets better.” [Source]

Last May, it was reported that both men had been arrested on suspicion of gathering and stealing state secrets. Under Chinese law, prosecutors have 13.5 months after an arrest to formally file charges. The BBC’s Stephen McDonell notes that “China’s court system is completely controlled by the Communist Party and has an almost 100% conviction rate once defendants are charged.” On his blog, legal scholar Jerome Cohen comments on possible linkages, both legal and political, between the two mens’ cases:

One basic question is the extent to which the cases of the “two Michaels” are linked. Last year, China’s powerful Central Party Political-Legal Commission claimed that Spavor, the businessman, had provided intelligence to Kovrig, the International Crisis Group researcher. That might well be plausible since Kovrig would obviously want to be in contact with all sorts of people, particularly ones who knew a lot about North Korea and its relations with China. Yet their relationship does not appear to be an important part of either case, so far as we can tell. The two cases do not appear to be legally linked at this point. They are not being prosecuted together, the charges seem to be somewhat distinct so far as news accounts discern, and they are not even being prosecuted in the same city. Intriguingly, Spovar may be charged with sending secrets to the DPRK as well as Canada, which may be why his case is now based near the Korean border.

Yet it is obvious from the circumstances of their common connection to Sino-Canadian relations and the US attempt to extradite from Canada Huawei’s CFO, Ms. Meng, as well as from some PRC diplomatic statements and publicity, that the cases are politically linked to each other and to the extradition case. This is not simply the usual PRC practice of illegal arbitrary detention that violates both Chinese and international law but it is also a more extraordinary example of international “hostage diplomacy.” [Source]

At The New York Times, Javier C. Hernández and Catherine Porter report on the Chinese and Canadian governments’ response to the charges:

When a reporter asked how China viewed “hostage diplomacy,” Mr. Zhao bristled. “You ask a question brimming with malice,” he said. “You better ask the Canadian government what hostage diplomacy is.”

Asked a similar question at a news conference in Canada on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada was “doing everything it can” to secure their release and end their “arbitrary detention,” according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“We will continue to use all of our expertise to return these two Michaels to Canada,” he said.

If convicted in China’s courts, which are controlled by the governing Communist Party, the men could face harsh punishments. Asked on Friday if they might face lengthy prison sentences or even the death penalty, Mr. Zhao declined to comment, saying it was a “hypothetical question.” [Source]

The Chinese government recently sentenced an Australian man, Karm Gilespie, to death on drug trafficking charges. Gilespie had been detained in China since 2013 and then tried in 2014 and 2015, but that was not publicly known until his sentence was announced this month. As with Kovrig’s and Spavor’s cases, many observers believe the sentence is being used as diplomatic leverage by China. Peter Humphrey, a former fraud investigator who was imprisoned in China in 2013, commented on the recent cases to the Guardian’s Helen Davidson:

“Perhaps seven years ago, they had no intention of doing what they’ve just done with Gillespie,” Humphrey told the Guardian.

“But because of what’s been going on between China and Australia in recent months, they’ve just done this. It’s got nothing to do with the original case against him.

“What they’re doing is deliberately creating a point of leverage and negotiation which they can inject into their discussions with the Australian government.”

[…] “And, although we haven’t yet seen the two Michaels from Canada given the death sentence, don’t be surprised if we do,” Humphrey said, referring to the arrests of the former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and the businessman Michael Spavor after Canadian authorities arrested the Chinese Huawei executive .

“This is the level of China’s game.” [Source]

Following Meng’s detention, several Canadians were detained in China, including two who were sentenced to death on drug charges.

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