Politics

Ottawa could do more to free 2 Canadians jailed in China, Michael Kovrig's wife says

Vina Nadjibulla said Monday that the year-and-a-half ordeal involving the detention of her husband Michael Kovrig in China had reached a point where "words are no longer enough."

Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been detained in China for 560 days

Michael Kovrig’s wife (though separated) Vina Nadjibulla speaks for the first time in an exclusive interview with Adrienne Arsenault about his detention, Canada’s diplomacy and her fears for the future. Nadjibulla also shares letters Kovrig has sent during his 560 days in a Chinese prison. 13:23

Watch Adrienne Arsenault's exclusive interview with Vina Nadjibulla on The National tonight at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network, 10 p.m. ET on CBC Television, and on cbcnews.ca.

The government could be doing more to get Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig out of jail in China, according to the latter's wife.

Vina Nadjibulla told The National's Adrienne Arsenault on Monday that the year-and-a-half long ordeal has reached a point where "words are no longer enough."

"We as Canadians, as a Canadian government, have to take action to bring him home," Nadjibulla said.

Kovrig and Spavor have been in jail in China since December 2018, detained just days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on behalf of American justice officials, who alleged the daughter of the Chinese technology giant's founder had broken U.S. sanctions on doing business with Iran.

WATCH | Nadjibulla tells CBC News she gets angry and frustrated at times: 

Vina Nadjibulla tells The National's Adrienne Arsenault that the safety and well-being of her husband, Michael Kovrig, who has been detained in China for a year and a half, is foremost in her mind. 0:41

Meng remains in B.C. under house arrest, after losing a ruling last month in her ongoing fight against the U.S. extradition order. 

Nadjibulla, who is separated from her husband, said that she has obtained a legal opinion in Canada which confirmed Ottawa can end the extradition process within the rule of law and without any judicial interference. 

"The minister [of justice] can act. Whether the minister should act is a second question. And that is a conversation we should be having instead of hiding behind," she said. 

Last week, Chinese authorities charged Kovrig with suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence, and formally accused Spavor of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.

"In the absence of letting them go they had to take this [legal] step, and they have. The situation remains the same — they are innocent," said Nadjibulla.

WATCH | Nadjibulla says Canada can choose to end the extradition process:

Vina Nadjibulla, wife of Canadian Michael Kovrig, who is detained in China, says there is more Canada could do to get both him and fellow detainee Michal Spavor, released. 1:46

But, she said, it was "still heartbreaking," given that Kovrig is been languishing in a single cell in what he has described in letters to her and the rest of his family as a "concrete desert." Earlier, he had been subjected to solitary confinement.

"Basically he has been confined to a single cell this entire time. He has not gone outside. He has not seen a tree or had fresh air to breathe for 560 days," said Nadjibulla.

This is about Canada and Canadian lives that are in harm's way.- Vina Nadjibulla

Nadjibulla, who grew up in Afghanistan and was once kidnapped, said that particular experience has given her "a unique window, a tiny window" to be able to understand his plight in the letters they've exchanged.

While Nadjibulla praised the Liberal government and Canadian officials in China for working "tirelessly" on Kovrig's behalf within days of apprehension, she believes there's more that could be done. 

"This is about Canada and Canadian lives that are in harm's way. I am interested in Canada and Canadians standing up for Canadians and Canadian values."

She says this is not about being tough and standing up to China. 

"I'm interested in us being strong, but not antagonistic.  We cannot win a race to the bottom with China, we cannot become aggressive and confrontational because confrontation is not a strategy."

Beijing denies connection

Kovrig had been serving as a senior adviser for North East Asia for the International Crisis Group since February 2017, having previously worked for the Canadian mission at the United Nations.

The think-tank decried the charges last week as "groundless, indefensible, and sadly unsurprising."

"Today's charges change nothing to our resolve to secure Michael's release and to our hope and expectation that he will soon be reunited with loved ones," Crisis Group chief executive officer Robert Malley said.

Nadjibulla, who says she once worked in China, said that after the initial shock wore off in December 2018 "it wasn't hard to put two and two together" that his detention could be connected to Meng's arrest.

WATCH | Chinese officials deny charges are linked to Meng arrest:

Freelance reporter Patrick Fok pressed China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson over perceived connections between Meng Wanzhou's extradition case and espionage charges against jailed Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.  2:45

Beijing has denied the charges against the two men are related, earning derision from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a Monday news conference.

"Within the very first few days of the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Chinese officials were highlighting a link between the detention a week before of Meng and the arrest of the two Michaels."

WATCH | Trudeau says China has always linked the two cases:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains the plight of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and how China linked their arrest to the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. 1:10

On Saturday, China lashed out at Canada, saying the matter is based on evidence and urging Ottawa to cease its "megaphone diplomacy."

In a website post, a representative of the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa criticized recent "irresponsible remarks" by Canadian leaders.

"The facts are clear and evidence solid and sufficient. The accusation of so-called 'arbitrarily' detaining Canadian citizens is totally groundless," the post said.

U.S. 'stands with Canada': Pompeo

Trudeau reaffirmed when asked by a reporter that the government would not consider some kind of swap to free either man for Meng, characterizing such a move as representing a "weakening" of Canadian values and the Canadian justice system.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the U.S. "stands with Canada," in the wake of the charges against Kovrig and Spavor.

"These charges are politically motivated and completely groundless," Pompeo said in a statement.

The European Union also issued a new statement on Monday, calling for the end of their "arbitrary detention" and that of a Swedish citizen also jailed in China.

WATCH | China scolds Canada for 'double standard' over judicial independence

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson complains Canada and the U.S. are trying to interfere in China's judicial system in the cases of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. 2:51

"There really is a coalition of support and solidarity" for Kovrig and Spavor, Nadjibulla said.

Until Nadjibulla gets word Kovrig and Spavor are on a plane leaving China, she says she will keep fighting for their release.

"I don't spend a ton of time blaming or getting angry," she said. "A time for that may come, but this is not that time."

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