Wife of detained Canadian Michael Kovrig calls for diplomatic solution ahead of Chinese trial

Ahead of Michael Kovrig's trial which is expected to begin in a Beijing courtroom in the next 24 hours, the detained Canadian's wife is calling on Canada, the U.S. and China to reach a diplomatic solution that will free Kovrig and a second jailed Canadian, Michael Spavor.

Vina Nadjibulla praises supportive comments from Canadian and U.S. leaders but wants action to secure release

Michael Kovrig's wife hopes officials' words of support turn into action

2 years ago
Duration 7:41
Vina Nadjibulla, the wife of Michael Kovrig, says she is grateful that governments in Canada and the U.S. are treating the detention of her husband and Michael Spavor in China as a priority, but she hopes their words will be translated into action. Watch Rosemary Barton Live on Sundays at 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT/11:30 a.m. NT on CBC News Network and CBC Gem.

Ahead of Michael Kovrig's trial which is expected to begin in a Beijing courtroom in the next 24 hours, the detained Canadian's wife is calling on Canada, the U.S. and China to reach a diplomatic solution that will free Kovrig and a second jailed Canadian, Michael Spavor.

In an interview on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live, Vina Nadjibulla praised recent public comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in support of "the two Michaels," as they have become known around the world. 

But Nadjibulla said she wants to see those words translated into actions that secure their release as soon as possible.

"Solidarity and support and words are good, and we must continue to say those things," Nadjibulla told host Rosemary Barton.

"But what really will make a difference for Michael [Kovrig] and for Michael Spavor now are actions and concerted diplomatic effort on the part of all three governments to find a path forward."

Global Affairs Canada confirmed Sunday that Canadian officials won't be granted permission to attend.

"We'll continue to insist that we get access to the court today, but we're very pleased that we have such a great turnout and support for Michael Kovrig," Jim Nickel, chargé d'affaires at the Embassy of Canada to China, said outside the court on Monday in Beijing. 

"And we're hopeful that we'll be able to see him this morning and get access to the court."

Diplomatic spat

The detention of Kovrig and Spavor, who were both arrested in December 2018 for alleged espionage, is widely seen as retribution for Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou days earlier in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request. U.S. prosecutors accuse Huawei and Meng of violating American sanctions on Iran.

Many Western analysts and politicians believe their arrests are an attempt to pressure Canada to release Meng.

Canadian officials have called the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor "arbitrary," and China has yet to make public specific allegations or provide any evidence of wrongdoing. Others have called China's apparent willingness to use the two Michaels as bartering chips in its geopolitical relations an example "hostage diplomacy." 

Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, right, were arrested by China in the wake of charges against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and remain detained. (The Canadian Press, The Associated Press)

Nadjibulla and Kovrig separated before his detention in China, but she has remained in close contact with Canadian authorities and has become one of his strongest advocates.

"What's critical is that we ... see these trials as a stark reminder that real human beings are in harm's way and that they're enduring something unspeakably difficult and profoundly, profoundly unjust," Nadjibulla said, an international security and women's rights expert who met Kovrig when they both were attending Columbia University.

"Those with the power to end this unjust, arbitrary detention, I believe, must now do whatever is possible to do so."

The Canadian embassy in Beijing was notified last week that court hearings had been scheduled for Spavor on Friday and for Kovrig on Monday local time in China — over two years and three months after they were initially detained. Meng's extradition trial, meanwhile, has been underway since Jan. 2020.

Spavor's trial in the northeastern city of Dandong concluded Friday after two hours without a verdict. Diplomats from Canada and several other Western countries were forced to stand outside the courtroom after being denied access to the trial.

The timing of the two Michael's trials coincided with a closely watched meeting in Alaska between high-level diplomatic and security officials from Beijing and Washington that took place last week.

Police vehicles exit the Intermediate People's Court where Michael Spavor, a Canadian detained by China in December 2018 on suspicion of espionage, stood trial in Dandong, in China's Liaoning province, on Friday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Reuters news agency reported Friday that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised the issue of the two Michaels in their meeting with China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and state councillor, Wang Yi.

On Friday, Trudeau criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the trials and said China's treatment of Kovrig and Spavor threatens Beijing's relationships with Western nations.

"Let me be very clear," Trudeau said. "Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday that both cases have been handled in accordance with Chinese law, and that the rights of the two Michaels have been respected.

Jim Nickel, charge d'affaires of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, speaks to the media outside the Intermediate People's Court, where Spavor stood trial on Friday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Kovrig's wife hopeful for deportation

It's unclear what time Kovrig's trial will begin. "It's very difficult to predict what exactly will happen since we know so little, but I expect something very similar to what we saw for Michael Spavor," said Nadjibulla.

Nadjibulla said she has accepted that Kovrig will likely be found guilty given that Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99 per cent. 

But she expressed hope that Kovrig's and Spavor's cases could be handled similarly to that of Kevin and Julia Garratt. The couple was arrested by Chinese security officials in 2014 and accused of spying and stealing military secrets — one month after Chinese citizen Su Bin was arrested in B.C. on allegations he stole top-secret U.S. fighter jet plans.

Julia Garratt was released on bail in February 2015, while Kevin remained behind bars until September 2016. He was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison before being deported to Canada.

"I certainly hope that that is what we'll see in these cases as well," she said. "I have no idea on the timing, but it needs to be a top priority so that we don't miss that window of opportunity."

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

With files from Rosemary Barton and Philip Ling