On Monday, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the immediate release of two Canadians who are being held in China on espionage charges, which he called “politically motivated and completely groundless.”
“The United States stands with Canada in calling on Beijing for the immediate release of the two men and rejects the use of these unjustified detentions to coerce Canada,” Pompeo said in a press statement.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were detained shortly after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer (CFO) of Chinese telecoms company Huawei, by Canadian authorities acting on a US extradition warrant.
It is widely believed that the case against the two Canadians was a retaliatory act after the arrest of Meng, who stands accused of lying to authorities about Huawei’s business dealings with Iran, despite heavy sanctions being placed upon the country.
Last month, a Canadian judge ruled that her trial is valid and must continue. She is currently awaiting extradition to the US.
Chinese prosecutors officially announced the charges against the two Canadians on Friday, 18 months after their arrest in late 2018.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the two men had stolen and provided state secrets to foreign countries, in violation of Article 111 of China’s criminal law. Such crimes are punishable with a prison sentence of between 10 years to life “when circumstances are particularly serious.”
“The facts are clear and [the] evidence [is] solid and sufficient. [He] should be held accountable for criminal responsibilities under the above-mentioned charge,” said foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
While they refrained from providing specific details, China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said last year that Kovrig was accused of “stealing and spying on sensitive Chinese information and intelligence,” and that Spavor had provided him with intelligence.
Pompeo also addressed concerns that Chinese authorities are keeping the two in prison under what officials called “harsh” conditions and are withholding access to consular support during their detention.
“Additionally, we echo Canada’s call for immediate consular access to its two citizens, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as China has prohibited such access for almost six months, and the world has no knowledge of the two Canadians’ condition,” he said.
Meng is currently on bail living under house arrest in her C$13.6 million (US$10 million) mansion in Vancouver as she completes her graduate degree.
Kovrig had been working as a senior expert on Northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think tank based in Brussels. Spavor worked as a director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, an organization that promotes investment and tourism in North Korea.
ICG president Robert Malley has also denounced Kovrig’s arrest by Beijing, calling the charges “arbitrary and baseless.”
“Michael was not endangering national security: everything he was doing was open, transparent and well known to China’s authorities,” he said.
“Nor is it a secret why he continues to be detained: he has become an unfortunate pawn in a larger struggle among the United States, Canada and China,” he added, reiterating suspicions of China’s ulterior motives behind the arrests.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also stressed the importance for like-minded nations to speak up to “deplore” China’s actions in a press conference on Monday, seemingly thanking Pompeo for his denouncement of China earlier in the day.
Trudeau then proceeded to condemn China’s “using of arbitrary detentions as a means to advance political gains,” calling it “fully unacceptable in a world based on rules.”
In response to a suggestion that Canada participate in a prisoner exchange and trade Meng for the two detained men, however, Trudeau said that Canada is “not considering it.”
“Canada has a strong and independent justice system. We will ensure that it goes through its proper forces. And anyone who’s considering weakening our values or weakening the independence of our justice system doesn’t understand the importance of standing strong on our principles and our values,” said Trudeau.
Following Trudeau’s statement, Zhao gave another press conference in China where he denied any link between the Meng case and the cases of the two Canadian detainees. He also expressed frustration about “blatant and presumptuous” accusations from the US and Canada regarding “political motivation,” “unjustified detention” and “arbitrary detention.”
“Those labels should be most suitably pinned on them,” stated Zhao, citing the political implications of Meng’s arrest.
However, Zhao’s allegations contradict statements from other Chinese officials.
In May, Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu participated in an interview with Canadian news outlet Global News where he talked about Kovrig and Spavor’s detention.
He expressed that they are “in good physical condition” and have received “better food” in efforts to calm public backlash. However, he quickly raised Meng’s case in the conversation.
“The biggest issue in [China and Canada’s] bilateral relationship is still Meng Wanzhou’s case, so that’s why we have made our position very clear to make sure that she’s back in China smoothly and safely.”
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