Michael Kovrig Goes on Trial in China on Spying Charges

March 22, 2021 Updated: March 22, 2021

BEIJING—The second of Canada’s “two Michaels” went on trial in Beijing on Monday after being detained for more than two years in apparent retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of a top executive of Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

The trial of former diplomat Michael Kovrig on spying charges follows an initial hearing in the case of Canadian businessman Michael Spavor, who faces similar charges, in the northeastern city of Dandong on Friday.

Canadian diplomats have been denied access to the trials with the explanation the hearings were being held behind closed doors because of alleged national security concerns.

“We are deeply troubled by the total lack of transparency surrounding these hearings and we continue to work toward an immediate end to their arbitrary detention,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement Monday.

Michael Korvig talking at an interview in hong kong
Michael Kovrig, an adviser with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, speaks during an interview in Hong Kong on March 28, 2018. (AP Photo/File)

Diplomats and journalists have showed up nonetheless to seek information and show support.

Outside Beijing’s No. 2 Intermediate Court, Jim Nickel, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said he’d been told the trial had begun, but was barred from entry in what he complained was a violation of China’s international and bilateral treaty obligations.

“Michael Kovrig has been detained for more than two years now. He’s been arbitrarily detained and now we see that the court process itself is not transparent,” Nickel told reporters.

“We’re very troubled by this but we thank those who have come out from the embassies here in Beijing and the international support that we’ve had for Michael, for Canada and the call that many of us are making for their immediate release.”

Nickel said 26 countries had sent representatives to show their support, including the U.S., the U.K, Australia and many European nations.

Garneau thanked them all for their efforts.

“The eyes of the world are on these cases and proceedings,” he said.

The Chinese government has provided almost no information about the accusations against the two, but a newspaper run by the ruling Communist party alleges they collaborated in stealing state secrets and sending them abroad.

No verdict has been announced in Spavor’s case and it wasn’t clear if additional hearings would be held.

However, such cases are almost always predetermined in China, and Beijing is seen as using Kovrig and Spavor as leverage to obtain the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested at the request of the U.S. at the airport in Vancouver in December 2018.

The two Canadians were detained in China just days later and have been held ever since, while Meng has been released on bail and remains under house arrest at her Vancouver mansion.

Kovrig and Spavor were finally charged in June 2020 under China’s broadly defined national security laws.

Canadian citizen Michael Spavor, who is detained in China, in a file photo taking part in an interview from Yangi, China March 2, 2017. (AP Photo)
Canadian Michael Spavor takes part in an interview in Yangi, China, on March 2, 2017. (AP Photo)

Meng, meanwhile, is wanted by the U.S. on fraud charges related to Huawei’s dealings with Iran, which is under American financial sanctions.

At a news briefing in Ottawa on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the arbitrary imprisonment of Spavor and Kovrig was completely unacceptable, “as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings.”

The secretive nature of the Spavor hearing means “it becomes extremely difficult to make judgments around whether or not the trial was fair,” Trudeau added.