China Raises Stakes for U.S. With Trials in Huawei Feud
China has announced trials for two men at the heart of a bitter feud with Canada, raising the stakes in the case ahead of a crucial meeting between top diplomats from Beijing and Washington.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig will face their first court hearings Friday and Monday respectively, Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said in an emailed statement, adding that diplomats have requested to attend. “We believe these detentions are arbitrary, and remain deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings,” Garneau said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian sidestepped a question Thursday about the trials, telling a regular news briefing in Beijing he had nothing to add.
Kovrig, a Hong Kong-based International Crisis Group analyst, was charged in June with spying on state secrets. Spavor, who organized trips to North Korea, was accused of stealing and illegally providing state secrets to other countries. Those convicted of serious violations of the section of law cited by Chinese authorities face sentences of between 10 years and life in prison.
News of the trial -- more than two years after their initial detention -- comes before the first face-to-face meeting Thursday between top diplomats from the U.S. and China in Alaska. The Canadians’ cases have been entwined with Washington’s efforts to extradite Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou -- the eldest daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei -- from Canada for prosecution in the U.S.
Kovrig and Spavor were detained by the Chinese government on national security allegations just days after Meng’s December 2018 arrest in Vancouver. China has often linked the cases to Meng’s, with Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, telling reporters last year that halting the extradition “could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians.”
Zhao reiterated China’s desire for her release Thursday. Meng is back in a British Columbia courtroom this week contesting extradition in an Iran sanctions case.
“It’s a very important and worrisome development because that means that, once the trial has started, it will become very difficult to extricate them from China,” Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said by telephone. “The message to Washington is that, ‘If you want to help to get the Canadians back, you know what you have to do. You have to make sure that Ms. Meng comes back to China.’”
A Biden administration spokeswoman declined comment, referring only to President Joe Biden’s previous remarks. In February, after a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Biden called for the Canadians’ release, adding that “human beings are not bartering chips.”
“We’re going to work together until we get their safe return,” Biden said at the time.
Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, said Thursday she was “grateful and heartened by the public commitments and statements made by President Biden and other officials in the U.S. expressing solidarity with Canada.”
Beijing’s decision to proceed to a trial “underscores the urgency of the situation, the fact that real lives are on the line,” Nadjibulla said by phone. “All tools of diplomacy now need to be mobilized and put to use to end their unjust detention and suffering as quickly as possible.”
Chinese state media indicated last week that the trials could be imminent. Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin tweeted just hours after the U.S. confirmed the Alaska meeting that the proceedings against the two men would begin “soon.”
The Trump administration discussed a deal with Meng that would allow her to return to China in exchange for admitting wrongdoing, the Wall Street Journal reported in December, citing people familiar with the matter. Meng had resisted the demand, the Journal said, and China responded to the report by reaffirming its position that she was “innocent.”
Trudeau had rejected calls for a prisoner-swap earlier last year, saying “we cannot allow political pressures or random arrests of Canadian citizens to influence the functioning of our justice system.” In February, the cases led Canada to convene an international group opposing to the use of arbitrary detention as a coercive diplomatic tool, an initiative denounced by China as “hypocritical and despicable.”
The trial dates come as tensions between Canada and China rise on a number of issues ranging from the political crackdown in Hong Kong to allegations of genocide against China’s Uyghur Muslim minority. Trudeau entered office in 2015 hoping to seal in trade deal with the world’s second-largest economy.
Canadian public opinion against China has hardened, with more than three quarters of Canadians saying relations can’t improve until Kovrig and Spavor are released, according to a poll from this week.
“They shouldn’t have been detained in the first place. They shouldn’t have to go on trial,” Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Alberta’s China Institute, said by phone. “The incidence of anybody who is charged being found not guilty is infinitesimal, especially in something in this high profile.”
Haze Fan, a member of Bloomberg News’s Beijing bureau, was detained by the Beijing National Security Bureau in December on suspicion of engaging in criminal activities that jeopardized national security. The Foreign Ministry said in February that the case remained under investigation.
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