OTTAWA—Canada will continue to fight for the release of Michael Spavor and other Canadians arbitrarily detained in China, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau promised on Wednesday after a Chinese court sentenced the entrepreneur to 11 years in prison.
Garneau in a news conference said the government condemns “in the strongest possible terms” the prison sentence, which followed a closed-door trial in March in which Spavor was found guilty of spying on China.
“We know that the practice of arbitrary detention with a mock, sham trial with absolutely no transparency whatsoever, and a verdict that is completely unjustified are not acceptable in terms of international rules-based law,” Garneau said.
He added that Canada is working with its allies, including the United States, to secure the release of both Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, though he refused to provide details.
That includes whether there are discussions around Canada releasing Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in exchange for the Canadians who have become known around the world as simply the “two Michaels.”
The men have been detained for nearly three years after they were arrested on spying allegations shortly after Meng was detained at the Vancouver airport in December 2018.
A British Columbia court is preparing to hear final arguments on whether Wanzhou should be extradited to the U.S. where she is wanted on allegations of having violated trade laws.
Beijing denies there is a connection between Meng’s case and the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig, but Chinese officials and state media frequently mention the two men in relation to whether or not Meng is allowed to return to China.
Spavor’s sentencing also follows a Chinese court’s decision on Tuesday to uphold the death penalty for another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, in a case that many observers have similarly linked to Meng’s detention.
Asked whether Canada was negotiating over possibly sending Meng home in exchange for the release of the two Michaels, Canadian Ambassador to China Dominic Barton said, “There are intensive efforts and discussions. I don’t want to talk in any detail about that. But that will continue.”
Garneau similarly would not say whether such discussions are underway, saying only that Canadian diplomats in China and the U.S. have put in “considerable and intense work” on the file.
“This work will continue to go on with the aim of arriving at the result of freeing the two Michaels,” Garneau said, adding U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated his administration is treating them as if they were American citizens detained by China.
U.S. officials are “working with us to try to find a solution for the release of the two Michaels and I can’t go into any further details, but those intense discussions continue,” Garneau said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement following the verdict, calling it “absolutely unacceptable and unjust.”
“Today’s 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,” the statement read.
“For Mr. Spavor, as well as for Michael Kovrig who has also been arbitrarily detained, our top priority remains securing their immediate release. We will continue working around the clock to bring them home as soon as possible.”
Spavor’s sentencing also prompted an unusual joint show of support for Canada by the United States and 24 other governments.
Diplomats from the United States, Japan, Britain, Australia, Germany, and other European countries plus the European Union gathered at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in a show of support. They also have issued separate appeals for Spavor and Kovrig to receive fair trials or to be released.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the immediate and unconditional release of Spavor and Kovrig.
“The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable,” Blinken said in a statement.
“People should never be used as bargaining chips.”
European Council president Charles Michel wrote on Twitter that “arbitrary detentions have no place in international relations. The EU stands in full solidarity with Canada in condemning the sentencing of Mr. Spavor. We are joint in the call for his release.”
Spavor was sentenced by a court in Dandong, about 340 kilometers east of Beijing on the North Korean border. The Chinese government has released few details other than to accuse Spavor of passing along sensitive information to Kovrig, a former diplomat, beginning in 2017. Both have been held in isolation and have little contact with Canadian diplomats.
“While we disagree with the charges, we realize that this is the next step in the process to bring Michael home, and we will continue to support him through this challenging time,” Spavor’s family said in a statement.
“Michael’s life passion has been to bring different cultures together through tourism and events shared between the Korean peninsula and other countries including China and Canada,” his family said. “This situation has not dampened, but strengthened his passion.”
Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Ltd. and daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested on U.S. charges of lying to the Hong Kong arm of the British bank HSBC about possible dealings with Iran in violation of trade sanctions.
Meng’s lawyers argue the case is politically motivated and what she is accused of isn’t a crime in Canada.
China’s government has criticized the arrest as part of U.S. efforts to hamper its technology development. Huawei, a maker of network equipment and smartphones, is China’s first global tech brand and is at the centre of U.S.-Chinese tension over technology and the security of information systems.
Earlier, Barton said he didn’t think it was a coincidence the cases in China were happening while Meng’s case was advancing in Vancouver.
Barton said Chinese authorities cited photos taken by Spavor at airports that included military aircraft.
“A lot of it was around the photo evidence,” the ambassador said. “He obviously had a different view on that.”
Spavor worked in China but had extensive links with North Korea in tourism and other commercial ventures that brought him into contact with the isolated communist state’s leadership.
The Canadian Embassy noted Spavor had been held for 975 days as of Wednesday.
Barton met with Spavor after the sentencing and said he sent three messages: “Thank you for all your support, it means a lot to me. Two, I am in good spirits. And three, I want to get home.”
“He’s strong, resilient, focused on what’s happening,” Barton said. “We had a very good conversation.”
Kovrig, who also was detained in December 2018, stood trial in March. There has been no word on when a verdict might be announced.
On Tuesday, a Chinese court rejected the appeal of Schellenberg, whose 15-year prison term for drug smuggling was abruptly increased to death in January 2019 following Meng’s arrest. The case was sent to China’s supreme court for a mandatory review before it can be carried out.