China claims Kovrig, Spavor freed for health reasons

China's foreign ministry says the two Canadians detained in late 2019 who were allowed to return to Canada late last week were released on bail for health reasons.

Foreign ministry sought to downplay connection between their release and the return of Meng Wanzhou

Michael Kovrig embraces his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, following his arrival in Toronto on a Canadian Air Force jet after his release from detention in China. Michael Spavor, right, is seen leaving Calgary International Airport. Both men spent more than 1,000 days in a Chinese prison. (Cpl. Justin Dreimanis/DND-MDN Canada/Reuters, Colin Hall/CBC)

China's foreign ministry says Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were allowed to return to Canada late last week after nearly three years in detention, were released on bail for health reasons.

A ministry spokesperson made the comments Monday as Beijing sought to downplay the connection between their release and the return to China of a long-detained executive of Huawei Technologies.

Spavor and Kovrig were detained in December 2018, days after Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada at the request of U.S. authorities.

Many countries labelled China's action "hostage politics," while China accused Ottawa of arbitrary detention. The two Canadians were jailed for more than 1,000 days.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau touched on the arrests during his speech before the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.

"Canada observed the rule of law and two Canadian citizens paid a heavy price for this commitment," Garneau told delegates in New York.

"Canada will never forget this experience and this lesson. We shall continue to press for an end to arbitrary detention, wherever and however it occurs."

Garneau did not indicate that Ottawa would pursue any further action against China.

Meng fought the U.S. demand for extradition from Canada. She landed in China on Saturday after reaching a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that led to a prisoner swap.

"The case of Meng Wanzhou is completely different from that of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in nature," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a daily briefing on Monday.

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The two men were suspected of endangering national security, Hua said.

White House says 'no link' between cases

On Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there is "no link" between the U.S. Justice Department's deal to release Meng and China's decision to free Kovrig and Spavor.

"We have an independent justice department that made independent decisions, law-enforcement decisions," she said. "At the same time, we have made no secret about our push to have the two Michaels released. That's certainly positive news and good news."

Psaki noted that Biden raised "the two Michaels" in his last call with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said that every member of the administration who has contacts with Chinese officials has pushed for the release of the Canadians over the last nine months.

John Bolton, who was U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser at the time of Meng's arrest, described the development as a "hostage swap" during an interview on CBC's Power & Politics.

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John Bolton, who served as U.S. national security adviser to President Donald Trump, joined Power & Politics to discuss the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou: "I think the whole world thinks there was a hostage swap here and I think that's bad for the United States and bad for Canada."

He went on to argue that the Biden government should have pressed on with its case against Meng.

"I think it was a very ill-advised decision," Bolton said of the deal struck with Meng.

"I think the whole world thinks there was a hostage swap here and I think that's bad for the United States and bad for Canada."

No word on what health problems are

Spavor, an entrepreneur, had been sentenced to 11 years in prison, accused of spying. Kovrig had not yet been sentenced but was facing similar charges.

China released the two Canadians on bail after a "diagnosis by professional medical institutions, and with the guarantee of the Canadian ambassador to China," Hua said.

Hua did not answer questions from journalists about whether the prisoner releases were entirely unrelated and what the health reasons were.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou reads a statement outside the B.C. Supreme Court following the conclusion of her extradition hearing. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When asked if China was making statements to save face, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said he was "not going to predict why they would have made that statement."

"But I will agree with you that it is primarily for local consumption," he told CBC's Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.

"I saw the two Michaels yesterday. They're in fine form."

Meng reached an agreement with U.S. federal prosecutors that will drop fraud charges against her next year. In return, she is accepting responsibility for misrepresenting the company's business dealings in Iran.

Her return to China was broadcast live on the country's central broadcaster, CCTV, as she wore a red dress the shade of China's flag and thanked the country's leader, Xi Jinping, and the ruling Communist Party.

On Monday, Hua said Meng was a victim of "political persecution" and was able to return to China thanks to the "government's unrelenting efforts."

In contrast, news about the release of the two Michaels was reported by the state-owned tabloid Global Times, and while the news spread online, it was not carried by more authoritative state media agencies like CCTV or Xinhua.

Huawei is the biggest global supplier of network gear for phone and internet companies. It has been a symbol of China's progress in becoming a technological world power — and a subject of U.S. security and law enforcement concerns.

Former president Donald Trump's administration cut off Huawei's access to U.S. components and technology, including Google's music and other smartphone services, and later barred vendors worldwide from using U.S. technology to produce components for Huawei.

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With files from the Associated Press