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Canadian tried in China on spy charges in apparent tit-for-tat case

Security officers in Dandong, China
Security officers stand near a courthouse in Dandong, northeastern China, where a Canadian is being tried on spying charges.
(Ken Moritsugu / Associated Press)

China on Friday put on trial one of two Canadians held for more than two years in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior executive with Chinese telecom company Huawei.

Canada said its consular officials were refused permission to attend the proceedings against Michael Spavor, who is accused by China of stealing state secrets.

Jim Nickel, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said following a meeting with Spavor’s lawyer that the hearing ended at noon Friday after two hours. No verdict has been announced. Nickel declined to give other details, citing protection of Spavor’s privacy.

In a statement posted on its website, the Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong in the northeastern province of Liaoning said it had held a closed-door hearing on Spavor’s case. It said that Spavor — who is charged with spying and illegally sending state secrets abroad — and his defense lawyers were present for the proceedings and that the court would pronounce a sentence at a date “determined in accordance with law.”

Fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig is due in court Monday. The two were detained in December 2018, days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the U.S. at the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia. Kovrig is also charged with spying.

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The entrance to the courthouse was cordoned off with police tape Friday, and journalists were kept outside, although not detained or told to leave, as often occurs during sensitive legal cases. Police cars and vans with flashing lights passed through the gate to the court complex beside the Yalu River, which divides China from North Korea.

The arrest of a Chinese tech executive in Canada this month has quickly become a focal point in a wider battle between the U.S. and China over trade, national security and trust in the age of globalization.

Earlier, Nickel had knocked on a court door seeking entry but was refused. Another 10 diplomats from eight countries, including the U.S., Britain and Australia, stood on the street opposite the courthouse in a show of support.

International and bilateral treaties require that China provide Canadian diplomats access to the trial, but the court said Chinese law regarding trials on state security charges overrode such obligations, Nickel said.

The U.S. is seeking Meng’s extradition from Canada to face fraud charges related to Huawei’s dealings with Iran, which is under American financial sanctions.

Spavor and Kovrig have been held in China since their arrest, while Meng has been released on bail. The two men were charged in June 2020 with spying under China’s broadly applied national security laws.

Huawei is working on plans for a dedicated chip plant in Shanghai that would not use American technology, enabling it to secure supplies.

Spavor, an entrepreneur with North Korea-related business, was charged with spying for a foreign entity and illegally procuring state secrets. Kovrig, an analyst and former diplomat, was charged with illegally receiving state secrets and intelligence in collaboration with Spavor.

Prosecutors have not released details of the charges, and national security cases are routinely heard behind closed doors. The state-owned Global Times newspaper said Kovrig was accused of having used an ordinary passport and business visa to enter China to steal sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017, and Spavor was accused of being a key source of intelligence for Kovrig.

Meng’s case has infuriated the Chinese government, which has promoted Huawei as a global leader in mobile communications technology.

In Vancouver on Thursday, Meng’s lawyers told an extradition hearing that Canadian officials abused their power when they conspired with the U.S. to arrest her. Defense lawyer Tony Paisana said Canadian Border Services Agency officers took Meng’s phones, obtained their passwords and handed to them to Canadian police so the data could be shared with the FBI.

China approves plans to exert more power over Hong Kong, compete with the U.S. in technology and bolster Mandarin-language education.

Paisana said Meng was never told during questioning that she faced an arrest warrant in the U.S. and would have immediately asked for a lawyer if so informed. British Columbia Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes suggested that border officers would have questioned Meng more rigorously if they were actually conducting a covert criminal investigation, as her lawyers said.

China has demanded Meng’s immediate and unconditional release, saying the U.S. engineered her detention as part of a drive to contain China’s growing rise. Canadian authorities say Kovrig and Spavor were arbitrarily arrested to put pressure on Ottawa, and have demanded that they be released without charge.

China has also restricted various Canadian exports, including canola oil seed, and handed death sentences to another four Canadians convicted of drug smuggling.

Outside the courthouse, Nickel said Canada still held hope that Spavor and Kovrig could be released through joint efforts with the United States. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan are currently holding their first face-to-face talks with China’s top diplomats in Anchorage.

In Canada, Spavor’s family issued a statement saying that he had been granted “very limited access and interaction with his retained Chinese defense counsel,” according to the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail.

“At this time, we feel it is necessary to speak out and call for his unconditional release. His continued unjust detention depriving him of his liberty is both unfair and unreasonable, especially given the lack of transparency in the case,” the newspaper quoted the statement as saying.


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