Trudeau denounces 'lack of transparency' as Spavor tried in China on spy charges

·5 min read

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced China's "lack of transparency" Friday following the brief trial of Michael Spavor, one of two Canadians detained by Beijing for more than two years.

Analysts keeping a close eye on the events also sharply criticized the closed-door proceeding for Spavor, as Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, faces his own court hearing Monday.

Canada said its consular officials were refused permission to attend the trial of Spavor, an entrepreneur with North Korea-related business, who is accused by China of stealing state secrets.

Jim Nickel, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said he was told by Spavor’s lawyer that the hearing in Dandong ended at noon Friday after two hours. No verdict was announced.

Nickel declined to give other details, citing rules on protecting Spavor’s privacy.

Kovrig, also accused of espionage, served as a diplomat in China until 2016 and had been working for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental agency.

China's actions against Spavor and Kovrig are widely seen in the West as retaliation for the late 2018 arrest by Canadian authorities of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive with Chinese firm Huawei Technologies, so she can be extradited to the U.S. to face fraud charges.

At a news briefing in Ottawa, Trudeau said Friday the arbitrary imprisonment of Spavor and Kovrig was completely unacceptable, "as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings."

The secretive nature of the Spavor hearing means "it becomes extremely difficult to make judgments around whether or not the trial was fair," Trudeau added.

"I can certainly say that in Canada we are a country of an independent justice system that values transparency as part of the process in terms of ensuring that justice is fair and done properly.

"China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians, it is about the respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that is at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy they have engaged in."

The lack of a verdict in the Spavor case is essentially a signal that Chinese officials are waiting for instructions from the political level to decide what to do, said Ben Rowswell, a former diplomat and current president of the Canadian International Council, a non-partisan think tank.

"So it's terrible news for Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig," he said. "But it's a terrible day for China as well."

Ultimately, the cases will be about how China is perceived by the rest of the world, Rowswell said. "And they do seem to be digging themselves an ever-deeper hole."

China's actions toward the Canadians are intended to send a message that Beijing is no longer the little kid at the global table and "it's not going to be treated that way," said Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

"I think there's a lot of showmanship in what we're seeing coming out of China today," she said. "And unfortunately the two Michaels got very much caught in the middle of a larger global puzzle for show of power."

Canada's top priority remains securing release of the two men, Trudeau said. "We will continue to work tirelessly to bring them home as soon as possible."

In a statement posted on its website, the Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong in the northeastern province of Liaoning Province said it had held a closed-door hearing against Spavor on charges of spying and illegally sending state secrets abroad.

It said Spavor and his defence lawyers were present for the proceedings and the court would pronounce a sentence at a date "determined in accordance with law."

Outside the courthouse, Nickel said Canada still held hope that Spavor and Kovrig could be released through joint efforts with the U.S., whose Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan were holding their first face-to-face talks with China's top diplomats in Alaska.

“So we're hopeful that, in some measure, this trial may too lead to their immediate release," Nickel said.

China's Foreign Ministry denied any wrongdoing in the handling of Kovrig and Spavor's cases, attributing the timing of their trials to little more than coincidence.

Global Affairs Canada learned only Wednesday that Spavor's court hearing would proceed Friday, one day after the meetings began in Alaska.

"It is not linked to China-U.S. high-level strategic dialogue,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing Thursday.

He insisted Friday the men's cases have been handled appropriately, adding that since Spavor's case purportedly involves state secrets, "it is not heard in open court and no one is allowed to sit in on the trial."

For more than two years, Canada has been caught in a trilateral tug of war with the U.S. and China.

Meng is facing fraud and conspiracy charges linked to what prosecutors say was an elaborate effort to evade American sanctions against Iran.

Justice Department officials have refused to say much about the case beyond the fact that they continue to seek her extradition to the U.S.

Critics and allies alike have described the detention of Kovrig and Spavor as retribution for Canada's role in detaining Meng, and experts see little hope for their release so long as she continues to face charges.

In a statement Thursday, chargé d’affaires Katherine Brucker of the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa said Washington was "deeply alarmed" by the prospect of trials for Spavor and Kovrig.

"We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release and continue to condemn the lack of minimum procedural protections during their two-year arbitrary detention."

State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said Friday the U.S. was concerned by China's decision to hold a closed court hearing.

Trudeau expressed thanks to "our many, many international partners, friends and allies for their solidarity and support."

Canadian officials will continue to be in close contact with the men's families "during this difficult time," he added.

"To their loved ones, know that today and every day Canadians are with you and thinking of both Michaels."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press