Politics

Canadians released by Chinese call on Ottawa to take 'proactive' steps to free Michael Kovrig

The Canadian government needs to be more "proactive" in its confrontation with Beijing over China's detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, says a Canadian woman arrested with her husband by Chinese officials on suspicion of stealing state secrets.

'He may be trained for that. We weren't,' says Julia Garratt

Kevin Garratt embraces his wife Julia at the Vancouver International Airport on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016 after being jailed in China for more than two years. The Garratts are advising former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig's loved ones to be patient as they wait for his release by Chinese authorities. (James Zimmerman/CP/HO)

The Canadian government needs to be more "proactive" in its confrontation with Beijing over China's detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, says a Canadian couple arrested by Chinese officials on suspicion of stealing state secrets.

"Don't hold back," Kevin Garratt told CBC News Wednesday from Thailand, where he and his wife, Julia Garratt, are working on an aid project.

"Just keep pressing. (Kovrig) doesn't deserve what he's getting."

"I think (with) China, the Canadian government's approach very much was, 'We'll wait it out' ... Keep persisting but just wait it out," said Julia. "I don't encourage Canada to take that same approach. I think (Ottawa) could be proactive in some other ways."

After living in China for 30 years without incident, Kevin and Julia Garratt were arrested by Chinese security officials in 2014 and accused of spying and stealing military secrets. At the time, Kevin said he and his wife were "dumbfounded" by their arrest.

'They'll keep him in the dark'

Julia was released in February, 2015, but was put on bail with restrictions pending trial, and did not return to Canada until May 2016. Kevin wasn't released until September, 2016.

While the Garratts didn't expand on what they'd like to see Ottawa do in Kovrig's case, they were clear about what he can expect now that he's in Chinese custody: isolation and pressure tactics.

"They'll keep (him) in in the dark about everything," said Kevin. "They hopefully will grant him consular access. We were given that very quickly within a couple of days.

"They'll keep him, no access to media ... maybe no access to a lawyer. We didn't get access to a lawyer for almost a year. We couldn't talk about the case even when consular officials came, so it will be very isolating, I think. (He'll be) well guarded but treated well," he said.

"The only thing that I'm really thankful for — it's highly likely they wouldn't use any harsh techniques, or beat him, or things like that, based on our experience," said Julia. "We were really thankful for that, even though there was really extreme psychological pressure, and the lights were on 24/7. The interrogation was very intense and lasted six hours every day.

"(Kovrig) may be trained for that. We weren't ... we just were in absolute shock, incredulous about what was going on. I'm sure it would help, but I'm sure it will be a shock no matter what."

Michael Kovrig, an adviser with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, is seen in a still image from an interview in Hong Kong in March, 2018. Kovrig has been detained in China, according to the Canadian government. (Associated Press)

On Tuesday, the Canadian government confirmed Kovrig's detention by Chinese authorities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his family was receiving "consular assistance."

On Wednesday, China's Foreign Ministry denied knowledge of Kovrig's detention — but did state that the International Crisis Group, the NGO that employs Kovrig as a Hong-Kong-based analyst, is not registered in China and its activities in the country are illegal.

Kovrig served as a diplomat in Beijing and Hong Kong until 2016, but is on a leave of absence from the Canadian foreign service and has no diplomatic status to protect him.

'Hold on to hope'

His detention led to speculation that the Chinese government was using him to punish Canada for the recent arrest of the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in Vancouver.

Meng Wanzhou awaits possible extradition to the United States to face fraud charges. She is accused of misleading multinational banks about Huawei's control of a company operating in Iran, putting those banks at risk of violating U.S. sanctions. She has been released on $10 million bail.

Watch Canadians formerly held by China talk about experience

The Garratts said they feel "heartbroken" for Kovrig's family and counselled him and his loved ones to be patient — because he's not likely to be released soon.

"Just hold on to hope," said Kevin. "If (his family) can write letters, that would be great. I don't know if the Chinese ministry of security will let them send letters. They only allowed us to receive letters later on."

"Don't spend all your time worrying," said Julia. "Just quietly stay persistent and active and persevere ... but keep a good attitude about it. These countries ... trying to solve a big thing is going to take some time. Just take a big breath and be patient."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Garratts were working in the Philippines. In fact, they're based in Thailand.
    Dec 12, 2018 6:01 PM ET

With files from Doug Beazley

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