Detention of Canadians Kovrig and Spavor Reaches Two Year Mark

December 10, 2020 marks both international Human Rights Day and the two year anniversary of Michael Spavor and ’s detentions in China. The two Canadians were seized by Chinese police ten days after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver. She is currently under in Canada while undergoing extradition proceedings to the United States on fraud charges related to Huawei’s business with Iran. It is widely believed that Spavor and Kovrig were taken as hostages to facilitate Meng’s release. At The , Javier C. Hernández and Dan Bilefsky reported on Spavor and Kovrig’s lengthy detention and the charges against them:

Some former Canadian parliamentarians and diplomats as well as legal experts have argued that Canada’s justice minister should intervene to free Ms. Meng, saying that could clear the way for the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. But Mr. Trudeau has rejected such a move, saying it would undermine the of Canadian courts and encourage China or other countries to arbitrarily arrest Canadians.

[…]David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Beijing was not acting in good faith.

“Every step in the legal process against Ms. Meng is mirrored by a fake Chinese process during which China is retaliating,” Mr. Mulroney said. “Meng is a princess in their system — and they are saying: ‘How dare Canada hold her? And we will take a few pawns as ransom for her.’”

[…] The Communist Party has a history of holding foreigners on spurious charges as a way to extract concessions from companies and governments overseas. And while officials have denied that China takes part in “hostage diplomacy,” some analysts have hinted that the fates of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor might be linked to that of Ms. Meng. [Source]

During a December 10 press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hua Chunying stated that Kovrig and Spavor had been “arrested, indicted and tried,” a surprising statement as no had been announced. A November 30 article published by state media outlet Global Times used the same “arrested, prosecuted and tried” formula. The BBC has reported that Hua’s statement was a “translation error,” albeit her second such error this month:

However, Canadian diplomats in China indicated they had not been able to confirm with court authorities that a trial had taken place – and several hours later, Canada’s foreign ministry told the BBC that it had spoken directly with the foreign ministry and confirmed that “there has been no in the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor”.

It is not the first time a foreign ministry briefing has sparked confusion. On 1 December, Ms Hua also said that the two men had been “put… on trial” – but again, Chinese courts later confirmed that their trials had not taken place, Canadian sources said [Source]

Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, worked as the Senior Adviser for North East Asia at the International Crisis Group at the time of his arrest. Michael Spavor, one of the few Westerners to have met Kim Jong-un, ran Paektu Cultural Exchange, “an international non-governmental organization that facilitates sport, culture, tourism and business exchanges” with North Korea. In June, they were formally charged with espionage. Chinese authorities denied Spavor and Kovrig consular access for much of 2020. Kovrig only learned details of the coronavirus pandemic after his first digital consular visit in October.

Both have reportedly been held in harsh conditions, with Kovrig imprisoned in a ten square foot concrete cell in Beijing. At Politico, Andy Blatchford interviewed Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, and reported on his life in prison:

Vina Nadjibulla said as the two-year milestone approaches, the ordeal is taking a toll on her husband, and that 2020 has been particularly harsh — including a “very difficult” stretch from March to October when Kovrig heard nothing from the outside.

[…] She said in the letters he’s written to family from detention, he’s mentioned books that have helped him cope. He told them about “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a book that taught him about getting stronger from traumatic experiences rather than just surviving them.

Since he was arrested, Kovrig endured at least one six-month run of solitary confinement and at one point wrote in a letter to family how he hadn’t seen a tree for the entire time of his detention. Nadjibulla has recalled how he’s coped by sticking to a daily schedule of walking in circles around his cell, push-ups, meditation and singing “as a way to keep the mind from going into very, very dark places.”

He has also had a single phone call. In March, on humanitarian grounds, he was able to speak with his father for 16 minutes and 47 seconds. [Source]

Michael Spavor is being held in a separate facility in Dandong, along the North Korea border. At The Globe And Mail, Nathan Vanderklippe reported on Spavor’s condition and the detention center where he is being held:

The requests are handwritten on a sheet of unlined paper, a compendium of simple needs that delineate the contours of a Chinese detention centre, where each element of daily life – study, sleep, sanity – is a struggle.

[…] Detainees in China must hand wash their own laundry, typically with cold water, but in winter at the Dandong facility, clothes are dried on sheets of newspaper under their cots, said Kevin Garratt, another Canadian once detained in Dandong amid a spat between Ottawa and Beijing. Clothes that dry quickly are less susceptible to mould or odour. Tougher still are sheets and other bedding, which must also be washed by detainees using a single sink shared by everyone in the cell.

[…] In his letter, Mr. Spavor also asks for a new sleep mask, saying it should be durable because he uses it “2-3 times a day” – an indication that he is kept under 24-hour lighting.

[…] And notes from consular visits indicate a sense of humour that has remained intact. Mr. Spavor called his initial location, an unit run by , the “Shenyang Sheraton” and cracked wise about being on “extended sabbatical.” He also joked about being consoled by reading books about the terrible prison experiences endured by others. [Source]

A campaign to send Spavor and Kovrig Christmas cards, while also pressuring the Chinese government to release them, has gone viral on social media. Participants are urged to send the cards to their countries’ Chinese ambassadors.

In a recent op-ed, China’s ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu defended China’s treatment of Spavor and Kovrig, insisting that “China protects their legitimate rights in accordance with the law.” The ambassador then turned to Meng Wanzhou’s case, which he claimed “hurts Chinese people’s feelings badly [… and] is exactly the crux of the deteriorating China-Canada relations and the barrier that the two sides cannot neglect.” Meng’s extradition proceedings returned to court this week despite reports that the United States Justice Department is discussing a deal to allow Meng’s return to China. At The Wall Street Journal, Jacquie McNish, Aruna Viswanatha, Jonathan Cheng and Dan Strumpf reported the details of a potential deal, and how Kovrig and Spavor’s detention has influenced negotiations:

Under such an agreement, which prosecutors usually use with companies but rarely grant to individuals, Ms. Meng would be required to admit to some of the allegations against her but prosecutors would agree to potentially defer and later drop the charges if she cooperated, the people said.

[…] An agreement wouldn’t only allow her to return to China, it would also remove an issue that has caused Beijing’s relations with Ottawa to plummet and has added to a downward spiral in ties with Washington. A deal could also pave the way for China to return two Canadian men who were detained there soon after Ms. Meng’s arrest, a factor that is in part motivating the discussions, the people said.

[…] Ms. Meng’s lawyers and Justice Department officials are working to determine whether there are terms that both sides can agree to, two of the people said. Ms. Meng recently declined to approve a draft agreement because she didn’t agree with the way her communications with some of Huawei’s financial institutions were described, one person said.

[…] “It would be exceptional for the Justice Department to forgo a criminal conviction. But there are times when law- enforcement interests reasonably give way to overarching foreign-policy interests of the United States,” said Mr. Laufman, who is now in private practice at the law firm Wiggin and Dana LLP, referring to the Trump administration negotiations. “Given the impact of the Meng prosecution on Canada as well as on U. S-Chinese relations, this may be one of those cases.” [Source]

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