VANCOUVER—The formal charging Friday of two Canadians detained in China starts them down what is likely to be the path of a show trial and a predetermined outcome, in a situation that has become all the more perilous because of the international attention it has received, observers say.
Authorities in China announced Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig had been charged with crimes related to spying after more than a year and a half in detention. Now the two will enter a legal system stacked against them, according to experts.
“Their lawyers won’t be able to have any access to the evidence, because this is classified as a national secret,” said former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques.
Kovrig stands charged with suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence; Spavor has been charged with suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.
Both men were detained shortly after the chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested while transiting through Vancouver in December 2018. The arrest was made at the request of authorities in the United States, who want her extradited there to face fraud charges.
The arrest of Kovrig and Spavor is largely seen by observers as retaliation from Beijing for her arrest.
Meng’s latest attempt to stop extradition proceedings was turned down by the British Columbia Supreme Court weeks ago.
At a news conference in Beijing on Friday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, repeated the same phrase regarding each man and his case.
“The facts are clear and evidence solid and sufficient,” Zhao said. “The defendant should be held accountable for criminal responsibilities under the above-mentioned charge.”
Zhao also insinuated Canada was engaged in “hostage diplomacy” after a Canadian reporter in the room asked for the Chinese government’s take on the issue, and after questions about the timing of the charging of the Canadians so close to Meng’s court loss.
“Maybe you can ask the Canadian side about their take on ‘hostage diplomacy,’” he said.
Saint-Jacques said the two men being formally charged is essentially a guarantee they will be convicted for the crimes with which they are charged.
He said it was just a matter of time before China’s authorities announced charges and added that the two will not receive a fair trial, stressing China’s nearly 99.9 per cent conviction rate.
China is likely to claim it cannot interfere with the court process as well, he said, which will make it more difficult to get the men back to Canada.
They are facing sentences of 10 years to life and Saint-Jacques said he expects life sentences to be handed down.
Neither has had a consular visit in months. China blames the COVID-19 outbreak for the lack of consular access. Saint-Jacques said, at best, Spavor and Kovrig will eventually be able to see consular staff once a month.
When Saint-Jacques was ambassador, Canada was dealing with two other Canadians who had been arbitrarily detained by China. Kevin and Julia Garratt were arrested in 2014 and also accused of spying.
Julia was released in 2015; Kevin was deported in 2016. Saint-Jacques said he fears it won’t be as simple for Spavor and Kovrig, because China’s president, Xi Jinping, seems to have taken a personal interest in the case.
“I think he has some kind of personal debt toward Ren Zhengfei, the father of Mrs. Meng,” Saint-Jacques said. “Therefore, it’s a lot more complicated and there’s more at stake because of the rivalry between the U.S. and China around Huawei.”
Peter Humphrey, a British man who was working as a corporate investigator when he was arrested in 2013 and convicted of illegally obtaining personal information in China, echoed Saint-Jacques’ concerns about a predetermined outcome.
Humphrey said the next phase of the Spavor and Kovrig saga will be a highly scripted exercise in fake justice. He was never allowed to see the evidence against him and denies the charges.