China sheds little light on detention of Canadian Michael Kovrig

China's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday denied knowledge of the detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, a day after a Canadian court's decision to release a top Huawei Technologies executive on bail.

Beijing says Kovrig's employer was not properly registered as a non-governmental organization

Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale confirmed on Tuesday that Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, was arrested Monday night in Beijing. (Associated Press)

China's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday denied knowledge of the detention of a former Canadian diplomat, a day after Chinese citizens rejoiced over a Canadian court's decision to release a top Huawei Technologies executive on bail.

While declining to confirm Michael Kovrig's detention, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said the International Crisis Group, where Kovrig is a Hong-Kong-based analyst, was not registered in China and its activities in the country were illegal.

"I do not have information to provide you here," he said. "If there is such a thing, please do not worry. It is assured that China's relevant departments will definitely handle it according to law."

Because Kovrig's organization is not registered as a non-governmental organization in China, "once its staff become engaged in activities in China, it has already violated the law," Lu said.

Canadian officials have confirmed Kovrig's detention. He served as a diplomat in Beijing and Hong Kong until 2016, but is on a leave of absence from the Canadian foreign service so has no special status.

His new employer, The International Crisis Group, said he was taken into custody Monday night by the Beijing Bureau of Chinese State Security, which handles intelligence and counterintelligence matters in the Chinese capital.

Rob Malley, president of the Brussels-based research and foreign policy group, said he thinks Kovrig was in Beijing on personal matters at the time of his arrest and was definitely not there for any illegal purpose or for any reason that would undermine Chinese national security.

Listen here to the Front Burner podcast on how the Huawei arrest is playing out in China:

"The tone here is that this is an an innocent woman. So why would you treat her like a criminal? And the idea is, if you have handcuffed someone you have presumed their guilt," says Nathan VanderKlippe, the Globe and Mail's Asia correspondent. Tensions between Canada and China are high after the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and the subsequent detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig. Today on Front Burner, Nathan explains China's side of the diplomatic dispute and breaks down how this story is playing out in Beijing. 21:28

In a statement Wednesday the ICG called for Kovrig's immediate release, expressing concern for his health and safety. 

"Throughout his time with the organization, Michael has distinguished himself for his rigorous and impartial reporting, regularly interviewing Chinese officials to accurately reflect their views in our work," the ICG statement said in part, calling him a "noted and sought-after contributor on security issues in North East Asia."

It's unclear that Canadian officials have been granted consular access to Kovrig, as required by an agreement in place between China and Canada. The Chinese are also required to inform Canadian officials of the reasons for his detention.

Canadian officials from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on down continue to repeat that the government is "seized" with this case and taking it very seriously. Officials are engaging with the Chinese and providing support to Kovrig's family. 

The Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua said Kovrig was questioned by the Beijing National Security Bureau on Tuesday. The government news organization said he was suspected of engaging in activities that endanger China's national security. 

Huawei executive now out on bail

Kovrig's detention comes in the wake of a diplomatic furor after Huawei Technologies' chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was detained in Vancouver on Dec. 1 at the request of U.S. officials.

Huawei official Meng Wanzhou, arrested on a U.S. warrant, was released on $10 million bail 0:51

After three days of hearings, a British Columbia judge granted bail Tuesday of $10 million to Meng, but required her to wear an ankle bracelet, surrender her passports, stay in Vancouver and its suburbs and confine herself to one of her two Vancouver homes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The U.S. has accused Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment to Iran in violation of American sanctions, another complication in relations between the superpowers amid their high-stakes U.S.-China trade talks.

Lu repeated China's demand for the immediate release of Meng, whose father founded Huawei, the Shenzhen-based leading telecommunications equipment maker. Huawei has strong connections to the Chinese government and military, has repeatedly denied allegations it is involved in spying.

In an interview Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested he would intervene in Meng's case if it would be in the interests of the U.S. The Americans and the Chinese are in the middle of a 90-day effort to negotiate a truce in their trade war, following the imposition of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of escalating tariffs on each other's products.

Canada maintains that Meng was arrested because she is wanted on fraud charges in connection with these alleged sanctions violations: under its extradition treaty with the U.S., Canada was required to detain her when she passed through.

"Regardless of what goes on in other countries, Canada is and will always remain a country of the rule of law," Trudeau said heading into the Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

With files from CBC News