DANDONG – China on Friday put on trial one of two Canadians held for more than two years in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a senior Chinese telecom executive.
Canada said its consular officials were refused permission to attend the proceedings against Michael Spavor, who is accused by China of stealing state secrets.
Jim Nickel, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said the hearing ended at noon Friday after two hours. No verdict has been announced.
Nickel declined to give other details, citing rules on protecting Spavor’s privacy.
In a statement posted on its website, the Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong in the northeastern province of Liaoning Province said it had held a closed-door hearing against Spavor on charges of spying and illegally sending state secrets abroad. It said Spavor and his defense lawyers were present for the proceedings and the court would pronounce a sentence at a date “determined in accordance with law."
Fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig is due to go before a court on Monday. The two were detained in December 2018, days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the U.S. at the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both are charged with spying.
The entrance to the courthouse was roped off with police tape and journalists were kept outside, although not detained or told to leave, as often occurs during sensitive legal cases. Police cars and vans with lights flashing passed through the gate to the court complex, located beside the Yalu River that divides China from North Korea.
Earlier, Nickel had knocked on a court door seeking entry but was refused. Another 10 diplomats from eight countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, stood on the street opposite the courthouse in a show of support.
International and bilateral treaties required that China provide Canadian diplomats access to the trial, but the court said Chinese law regarding trials on state security charges overrode such obligations, Nickel said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blasted Beijing for holding the trial “in secret” without access for consular officials.
“Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings,” Trudeau said in Ottawa.
“China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians. It's about respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that are at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy that they've engaged in.”
Trudeau said he was heartened and touched to see diplomats come out to support the Canadians in Dandong
Canadian authorities say Kovrig and Spavor were arbitrarily arrested to put pressure on Ottawa in the case of Meng, who is sought by the U.S. on fraud charges related to the telecom giant's dealings with Iran, which is under American financial sanctions.
The two Canadians have been held ever since, while Meng has been released on bail. They were charged in June 2020 under China’s broadly defined national security laws.
Spavor, an entrepreneur with North Korea-related business, was charged with spying for a foreign entity and illegally procuring state secrets. Kovrig, an analyst and former diplomat, was charged with illegally receiving state secrets and intelligence in collaboration with Spavor.
Prosecutors have not released details of the charges and national security cases are routinely held behind closed doors. The state-owned Global Times newspaper said Kovrig was accused of having used an ordinary passport and business visa to enter China to steal sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017, while Spavor was accused of being a key source of intelligence for Kovrig.
Meng's case has infuriated China's government, which has promoted Huawei as a global leader in mobile communications technology.
In Vancouver on Thursday, Meng’s lawyers told an extradition hearing that Canadian officials abused their power when they conspired with the U.S. to arrest her. Defense lawyer Tony Paisana said Canadian Border Services Agency officers took Meng’s phones, obtained their passwords, then handed to them to Canadian police so the data could be shared with the FBI.
Paisana said Meng was never told during questioning that she faced an arrest warrant in the U.S. and would have immediately asked for a lawyer if so informed. British Columbia Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes suggested border officers would have questioned Meng more rigorously if their exam was actually a covert criminal investigation, as her lawyers said.
China has demanded Meng’s immediate and unconditional release. It also has restricted various Canadian exports, including canola oil seed, and handed death sentences to another four Canadians convicted of drug smuggling.
Outside the courthouse, Nickel said Canada still held hope that Spavor and Kovrig could be released through joint efforts with the U.S., whose Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are currently holding their first face-to-face talks with China's top diplomats in Anchorage, Alaska.
The China-U.S. dialogue got off to a rocky start Thursday, with the U.S. accusing the Chinese delegation of “grandstanding” and top Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi accusing the American side of hypocrisy and taking a patronizing attitude. On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said there was a “strong smell of gunpowder and drama” at the talks that was entirely the fault of the Americans.
In Canada, Spavor’s family issued a statement saying he had been granted “very limited access and interaction with his retained Chinese defense counsel,” according to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.
“At this time, we feel it is necessary to speak out and call for his unconditional release. His continued unjust detention depriving him of his liberty is both unfair and unreasonable, especially given the lack of transparency in the case,” the newspaper quoted the statement as saying.
Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto and Jim Morris in Vancouver, British Columbia, contributed to this report.