As trials loom, China says case of two Michaels handled 'in accordance with the law'

·5 min read

WASHINGTON — China's foreign ministry denied any wrongdoing Thursday in their handling of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, attributing the timing of their trials to little more than coincidence.

Global Affairs Canada only learned Wednesday that Spavor's court hearing would proceed on Friday — one day after closely watched high-level meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials in Alaska.

A hearing for Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, has been scheduled for Monday.

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

He insisted that their cases have been handled "in accordance with the law" and "the lawful rights of the individuals concerned."

Canada, however, disagrees, calling their detention "arbitrary" and accusing China of a lack of transparency.

The timing, however, was indeed curious: after more than two years in custody and little hint about when they might stand trial, Beijing abruptly notified the Canadian Embassy on Wednesday that hearings were imminent.

They come on the heels of Thursday's meetings in Anchorage, where U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were sitting down with their Chinese counterparts in an effort to reset relations between the two countries.

State Department spokesperson Janina Porter promised a "frank conversation" calling out China's defiance of global commitments, undermining of the rules-based international order and challenge to American values.

By early accounts, it lived up to the billing.

What was supposed to be a staid exchange of two-minute statements for the benefit of gathered journalists instead turned into a protracted airing of grievances, with Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi spending more than 15 minutes denigrating what he characterized as U.S. hypocrisy when it comes to promoting Western values.

"We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world," Yang said.

"Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States."

In Washington, the State Department accused the Chinese delegation of "grandstanding" and preferring "public theatrics and dramatics over substance."

Earlier Thursday, observers cautioned Canadians against putting too much faith in the meeting — a perspective that appeared likely to be borne out, if the tenor of the opening remarks was any indication.

Still, both Blinken and President Joe Biden had promised to make the plight of the two men — known increasingly around the world as the "two Michaels" — a priority in their discussions with China.

They have been in custody since December 2018, shortly after Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Canada has been caught in the middle of a trilateral diplomatic tug of war ever since.

"As facts have fully proven, this is a political incident from the very beginning," Zhao said.

"We urge the U.S. side to correct its mistake without further delay and ensure Ms. Meng's safe return to China at an early date."

He also insisted that when it comes to the two Michaels, China has respected the terms of two key agreements — the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the China-Canada Consular Agreement.

International Crisis Group, a non-governmental agency where Kovrig worked, issued a statement Thursday to mark the news of the pending trial.

"From the moment he was detained, the political nature of his case has been clear," said interim president Richard Atwood.

"After 830 days imprisoned, Michael should be released immediately so he can return home to his loved ones."

Comfort Ero, the group's interim vice-president, called the trial "just another arbitrary political action masked as legal process."

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said Canada is working "tirelessly" to secure the release of the two men, and has asked for continued consular access as well as the opportunity to attend the hearings.

"Canadian officials will continue to provide consular support to these men and their families during this unacceptable ordeal."

China was expected to use Thursday's meeting to ask the U.S. to lift sanctions imposed by the former Trump administration on certain Chinese nationals and entities, including Huawei.

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.

Blinken and Biden both recently spoke up for the pair, part of an ongoing reset of Canada-U.S. relations in the post-Trump era.

"Human beings are not bartering chips," Biden said following a virtual summit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month.

That same week, Blinken pledged "absolute solidarity" with Canada after his own virtual conference with Garneau and a host of other Canadian officials, including Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S.

Blinken also cheered the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, a Canadian initiative comprising a coalition of more than 50 countries opposed to the state-sponsored political detention of foreign nationals.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press

James McCarten, The Canadian Press