Former Canadian Diplomat Detained in China Wasn’t a Spy, Boss Says

(Bloomberg) -- A week after China’s spy agency detained a former Canadian diplomat, his employer still doesn’t know what specific allegations he’s being investigated for or when he may be charged or released.

The International Crisis Group was seeking a meeting with the Chinese authorities to explain what Michael Kovrig was doing and seek information about what he has been charged with, Robert Malley, the group’s chief executive officer, said by phone Monday.

“I refrain from speculating about why they are holding him, but they are not holding him because of espionage,” Malley said. “It is pretty clear that what he was doing was neither secretive, nor in anyway endangering Chinese national security.”

Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who now works for the Brussels-based non-profit conflict-prevention organization, was detained Dec. 10 in Beijing by a branch of China’s Ministry of State Security. Another Canadian, Michael Spavor, who organizes North Korea trips for foreigners including ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman, was detained the same day. Both were “suspected of activities endangering national security,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last week.

‘Not Acceptable’

The arrest of the two Canadians came against the background of what China’s foreign ministry has described as “public anger” over Canada’s arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou earlier this month on a U.S. extradition request. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called the detentions “unlawful,” while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that China’s behavior was “not acceptable” in a television interview with CityTV which aired Friday morning.

Canadian officials were allowed to visit Kovrig in Beijing on Friday and Spavor on Sunday. Tensions between Canada and China have been rising since the Dec. 1 detention of the Huawei executive. The two countries jointly agreed to postpone a visit by Canada’s tourism minister next week.

“China strongly urges Canada to correct its mistake and release Meng, and to protect the relevant person’s legal rights,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing Monday in Beijing. “China also strongly urges the U.S. to withdraw the arrest warrant.”

Open Research

China has deflected questions about whether the Kovrig and Spavor cases are linked. Malley said Kovrig was engaged in the usual activities of a Crisis Group analyst -- openly meeting with people and talking to them about how best to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

“It would be the worst case of espionage possible because his research is open, his interactions are open, his publications are open and they are all available on our website,” Malley said. “Michael would meet with Chinese officials both to tell them what he had heard and ask them what their views are and to share with them any policy recommendations that came out of the meetings that they had.”

Malley said he wasn’t familiar with Spavor’s case. “If the Chinese authorities are making a linkage, I don’t know know why they are making it, apart from the fact that these are two Canadians who are both working on China-related issues,” Malley said.

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