Updated: August 18, 2021 8:54:36 am
A court in China on Wednesday sentenced Michael Spavor, a businessman from Canada detained since 2018, to 11 years in prison, after pronouncing him guilty of spying.
The verdict invited an angry response from Canada, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the ruling “absolutely unacceptable” and demanding that Spavor be immediately released.
The United States also came out in support, with its embassy in Beijing calling the proceedings against Spavor and Michael Kovrig — another Canadian arrested around the same time — as an attempt to “use human beings as bargaining leverage”, referring to the wider diplomatic battle raging between the West and China since Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
The conviction is the latest addition to the West’s list of grievances against China, which it blames for mishandling the coronavirus pandemic early on, attacking freedoms in Hong Kong and carrying out a cultural genocide in Xinjiang.
What is China’s case against the two Canadians?
Spavor has been convicted by a court in Dandong, a city in northeast China near the border with North Korea. The court said in a short statement, “For the crime of spying and illegal provision of state secrets abroad [Spavor] has been sentenced to 11 years in jail, confiscation of 50,000 yuan (US $7,715) worth of personal property and deportation.” Although the court did not make it clear when it would deport Spavor, it is known that China mostly deports foreigners only after they have served their sentence.
The other Canadian who is now expected to meet a similar fate as Spavor is Michael Kovrig, an ex-diplomat who was also arrested in 2018. As per a New York Times report, both Spavor and Kovrig have been held in harsh conditions in secret jails, without access to their families and restricted legal and consular support. In March this year, the two Canadians faced a trial in which diplomats from Canada and other friendly countries were excluded.
Both Spavor and Kovrig were arrested within two weeks of Canada detaining Meng Wanzou, a top Chinese business executive, at the request of the US– a move that invoked Beijing’s fury.
Who is Meng Wanzou, and why did Canada arrest her?
In December 2018, Canadian authorities arrested Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s global chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, 49, also a daughter of the company founder, on allegations of fraud levelled by the US. The move led to China warning Canada and calling in the US Ambassador in Beijing to lodge its protest.
The arrest came after US authorities suspected her involvement in a scheme to trick financial institutions into making transactions that violated US sanctions against Iran. The warrant against her was based on allegations of a conspiracy to defraud banks which had cleared money that was claimed to be for Huawei but was actually for Skycom, described as an “unofficial subsidiary”, which allegedly attempted to sell US equipment to Iran despite the US and European Union bans.
ack then, when financial institutions asked Huawei about the allegations, Meng reportedly met with an executive from one institution and said Huawei operated in Iran in compliance with US sanctions, and that it had sold its shares in Skycom. Huawei was accused of trying to hide its connection with Skycom, and Canadian authorities said that Meng’s presentation to the financial institution constituted fraud.
Meng is currently out on bail of 10 million Canadian dollars, and is fighting extradition to the US. She is living in the Canadian city of Vancouver, where her living conditions stand in stark contrast to the treatment China has meted out to the two Canadians.
As per the NYT report, Meng is living in a seven-room mansion in an elite part of the city, and has had private painting lessons and massages. She is free to move around Vancouver; her movements monitored by a GPS tracker on her ankle.
Can the Canadians be released?
While Canada has condemned the arrest of its two nationals as political hostage-taking, China has denied that their detention is in any way involved with Meng’s. Canada has expressed support for its nationals, with Trudeau saying, “The verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process, and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law”.
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Although Spavor has the right to appeal his conviction, there is little hope for him as China’s opaque judicial system convicts most people on trial and rarely overturns sentences. Experts believe that both Spavor and Kovrig’s fate depends on a potential deal between Canada, the US and China, with the latter expected to budge only if Meng is first allowed to come back home.
A third Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, is also believed to be a victim of China’s anger following Meng’s arrest. Schellenberg, who had initially been sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug trafficking, had his punishment increased to the death penalty a month after Meng’s arrest, despite no new evidence adduced at his retrial, as per a Reuters report.