Canadians Arrested for Espionage in China go on Trial

Madeline Field
Staff Writer

A crowd of diplomats gathered outside a court in the northern Chinese city of Dandong to protest the trials of two Canadian citizens accused of espionage by the Chinese government.

No verdict has yet been returned in the trials of entrepreneur Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, which follow their arrests for espionage in December of 2019. The men were charged in June 2020 under China’s expansive national security laws and have been detained since. Although the Chinese government has not released a statement on official charges, state courts and The Guardian report that Kovrig is charged with “spying on state secrets and intelligence for foreign powers,” and Spavor for similar offenses. Both men could face life in prison if found guilty, which is a likely outcome under the notoriously punitive Chinese judicial system, according to BBC News.

The Canadians’ detentions are met with considerable international outrage as concerns over the legitimacy of the Chinese judicial system grow. Both men had closed door trials that lasted just a day, with Canadian officials barred from entry due to alleged state secrecy concerns. The head of the Canadian embassy in China, Jim Nickel, told reporters that the “lack of transparency” was deeply concerning, with the Associated Press calling it a violation of treaty obligations and international law.

The Chinese government took offense to the allegations, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying arguing that China’s need to protect state secrets is no different from Canada’s established judicial policy. The Associated Press continues that Hua argued Canada’s comments as “irresponsible,” marking a “gross interference” in the sovereignty of the country’s judicial proceedings.

Spavor and Kovrig’s arrests are thought to be in retaliation for the December 2019 arrest of a Chinese telecommunications executive. Huwaei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the United States in the Vancouver airport for violating U.S. trade sanctions with Iran. Although since released on bail, she is expected to face extradition to the United States on fraud charges.

Beijing has long promoted Huawei as a leader in communications and sees Meng’s arrest as an embarrassing attempt to politically and economically stunt the nation’s growing influence. In addition to the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig, who were arrested two days after Meng, the Associated Press adds that China tightened trade exports and sentenced four Canadians to death for drug smuggling. Further retaliation is expected if Meng is extradited.

Spavor and Kovrig’s cases attracted international attention, straining already-tenuous relations between China and many Western countries. At a press conference the morning of Spavor’s trial, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the men’s detentions “arbitrary” and lack of judicial transparency “unacceptable,” according to ABC News. He went on to say that rule of law and Western relationships are at stake, a concern echoed by the head counsel of the U.S. embassy in China, Katherine Brucker.

According to BBC News, Brucker released a statement indicating that U.S. officials were “deeply alarmed” by the trial’s recent developments. President Biden publicly called for the release of the Canadians, indicative of a potentially tumultuous future relationship with China.

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