Premature victory lap? Meng Wanzhou poses ahead of momentous court decision

Premature victory lap? Meng Wanzhou poses ahead of momentous court decision

With a momentous court ruling that could deliver her freedom days away, Meng Wanzhou appeared to take a premature victory lap on the weekend, posing for pictures and flashing a thumbs-up on the steps of B.C. Supreme Court.

The Huawei executive took part in a staged downtown Vancouver photo shoot as security guards stood watch Saturday evening. She jumped out of a black SUV to take centre stage once a group of family and friends had arranged themselves in front of a photographer.

It was an unusual move for the 48-year-old chief financial officer of the telecommunications giant. And even more so for a defendant who will learn this week whether the court's associate chief justice believes Meng is accused of an offence worthy of extradition to the United States.

"I can't say that I've seen that [before]," said Gary Botting, an expert on the Canadian extradition process.

"You can hardly blame her. This has gone on for nearly two years."

Accused of fraud

Meng was arrested on Dec. 1, 2018, at Vancouver's airport after arriving from Hong Kong for what was supposed to be a stopover en route to Mexico City and Argentina.

The U.S. wants Meng extradited to New York to face fraud charges for allegedly lying to an HSBC executive at a meeting in Hong Kong about Huawei's relationship with a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Ben Nelms/CBC

U.S. prosecutors claim banks in turn placed themselves at risk of running afoul of U.S. regulations by relying on Meng's alleged lies to continue handling Huawei's finances, risking prosecution and massive penalties in the process.

B.C. Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes announced her plans last week to deliver a decision Wednesday on an issue that could end the extradition process: double criminality.

If Holmes rules that the offence Meng is accused of committing in the U.S. would not have been considered a crime had it occurred in Canada at the time the arrest warrant was issued, then there was no double criminality, and Meng could be free to return to China — barring further detention on appeal.

Security guards kept watch

Saturday's appearance on the courthouse steps marked a very different look from the one Meng first presented to the world in December 2018. At that point, she had spent a week in a women's prison in Maple Ridge, B.C., emerging from the courthouse in a tracksuit to the glare of cameras, after being released on $10 million bail. 

Meng is the daughter of Huawei's billionaire founder, Ren Zhengfei. She currently lives under house arrest in one of two multi-million dollar homes she owns on Vancouver's west side. The terms of her release allow her movement around the city under the constant watch of a security detail.

Alex Migdal/CBC

Her plainclothes guards paced the sidewalk outside the courthouse for an hour before Meng arrived Saturday evening, their black SUV parked nearby.

A CBC reporter and photographer watched unobserved, from a distance.

At around 7 p.m., a photographer hauled a step ladder onto the sidewalk and another large black vehicle pulled up. 

A number of women and men dressed in suits began assembling on the stairs.

Black gown and ankle bracelet

Meng has appeared in court in designer dresses and shoes worth thousands, her wardrobe becoming part of her publicity strategy. 

Once the group of 11 people who would join her in the photographs found their places, Meng emerged from the SUV in a sleeveless black dress that reached to her ankles.

Ben Nelms/CBC

She pulled the hem of the dress up at one point to reveal the GPS ankle monitoring bracelet she must wear under the terms of her release.

Huawei board member and head of global media Vincent Peng, a longtime friend, stood next to Meng as the group smiled, made peace signs and gave thumbs-up to the camera.

After no more than about four minutes, Meng was back in the vehicle.

'Is this criminal in Canada?'

Meng has denied the charges against her, and both she and her father have expressed confidence in the Canadian judicial system. 

Still, it's rare to see an accused appear to celebrate before a decision.

Botting believes Meng has reason to be hopeful.

WATCH | Meng has courthouse photoshoots 2 days before key court decision:

During four days of hearings in January, Meng's lawyers argued the U.S. was trying to use Canada to enforce sanctions Canadians rejected by choosing to remain in a global treaty aimed at limiting Iran's nuclear ambitions that U.S. President Donald Trump decided to leave.

The Crown, on the other hand, claims Meng's alleged offence is one of fraud: depriving a bank through a lie. And that's a crime in the U.S. and Canada.

"I think there's a good chance of success in the sense that when it boils down to the nitty-gritty, is this criminal in Canada? What she's alleged to have done, if instead of the United States, it was Canada who was bringing the prosecution, would we continue with the prosecution? Would we regard this as being criminal enough to carry it forward and bring it to trial?" Botting asked.

"I think the answer is, fairly clearly, we wouldn't."

'She'll go back to China'

Botting says the strength of the case is undermined by the fact the alleged offence occurred in Hong Kong and the alleged victim is a U.K. bank. He calls Meng's detention arbitrary.

If Holmes sides with the Crown, Meng's lawyers will have another chance to fight the extradition with arguments over what they claim was an abuse of her rights at the time of her arrest.

The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press

But if Meng is successful, the Crown could appeal. Botting says she would not need to be in detention while the appeal is ongoing, but says U.S. prosecutors may well want to keep her in Canada.

"If she's smart, she'll go back to China," he says.

The two Michaels

In the meantime, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain in custody in China, where they were detained just days after Meng's arrest. 

Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, have been accused of spying in what many observers believe is retaliation for Canada's decision to act on behalf of the U.S. in regards to Meng.

Ben Nelms/CBC

The Canadian government has denounced China's treatment of the two men, who are being held behind bars and have been denied access to lawyers.

Many have pointed out the disparity between Meng's gold-plated, self-funded home-arrest and Kovrig and Spavor's harsh treatment.

And unlike Meng, neither man is appearing in any pictures.