Canada says it's being locked out of detained Canadians' trials in China

With just hours to go until Michael Spavor's national security trial begins in China, the federal government says that — despite multiple requests — the Chinese government has not granted Canadian officials permission to attend.

China insists it's upholding the law as Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor head to trial

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, have been in Chinese custody for more than two years, both having been charged with spying. Their trial is to begin Friday. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

With just hours to go until Michael Spavor's national security trial begins in China, the federal government says that — despite multiple requests — the Chinese government has not granted Canadian officials permission to attend.

Global Affairs Canada said today in a statement that the official notification they've received from Chinese authorities indicated that the trials for both Spavor and Michael Kovrig on national security charges will be closed to both the public and the media.

"Despite several official requests to Chinese authorities, Canadian officials have not yet received permission to attend the trials," said a department spokesperson.

"We remain deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings."

Spavor's court hearing is due to take place in Dandong on Friday, while Kovrig's court appearance is scheduled for Monday in Beijing.

WATCH | Spavor, Kovrig to go on trial in China for espionage:

Spavor, Kovrig to go on trial in China for espionage

1 year ago
Duration 1:54
Freelance reporter Patrick Fok says the timing of the espionage trials in China for Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig may be linked to trade talks between the U.S. and China.

Kovrig, a former diplomat who was working for an international non-profit group, and Spavor, an entrepreneur who promotes tourism and investment in North Korea, are Canadian citizens who were detained separately by China more than two years ago.

They were arrested in December 2018 shortly after Huawei telecom executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested by Canadian officials in Vancouver.

Meng was arrested on a U.S. extradition request over allegations that she lied to a Hong Kong banker in August 2013 about Huawei's control of a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Earlier today, China insisted that it had protected the legal rights of two Canadians due to be tried on national security charges — charges the Canadian government says Beijing fabricated following the arrest of Huawei telecom executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

"Chinese judicial organs handle cases independently in accordance with the law and fully protect all the legal rights of persons involved," Chinese government spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing Thursday.

The two men stand accused of spying on China — charges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said China concocted in retaliation for Meng's arrest.

"It is obvious that the two Michaels were arrested on trumped-up national security charges days after we fulfilled our extradition treaty responsibilities toward our ally, the United States," Trudeau said earlier this month.

Watch: Former U.S. homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff the trial in China:

China set to begin trial of two Canadians

1 year ago
Duration 1:27
Former U.S. homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff on the likelihood of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig being discussed at today's U.S.-China meeting: "It may come up but I would not be overly optimistic about the outcome."

Finding of guilt almost certain: former ambassador 

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the odds are stacked against the two men.

"We know it's preordained. Once you are formally charged in China, you are found guilty in more than 99.2 per cent of the cases," he told CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Wednesday.

"We have to brace ourselves for some bad news down the road."

Saint-Jacques said the timing of the trials — just as American and Chinese officials gather in Alaska for a summit — is likely not a coincidence. 

"We are in the hands of the Americans," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are expected to meet China's top two diplomats, State Councillor Wang Yi and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi, in Anchorage later Thursday.

Zhao rejected allegations the trial and the meetings are linked, while also urging the U.S. to release Meng.

"We urge the U.S. to correct its mistakes immediately and let Ms. Meng Wanzhou return to China safely immediately," he said at the Thursday briefing.

Spavor's family speaks out

Spavor's family issued a rare statement today on the eve of his trial, claiming his innocence. 

"As a family, we have chosen to remain largely out of the media due to Michael's request for privacy. At this time, we feel it is necessary to speak out and call for his unconditional release. His continued unjust detention depriving him of his liberty is both unfair and unreasonable, especially given the lack of transparency in the case," says the statement.

"Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman who has done extraordinary things to build constructive ties between Canada, China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people. We stand by Michael and maintain his innocence in this difficult situation."

In an interview with Power & Politics on Wednesday, Kovrig's wife, Vina Nadjibulla, said it is an emotional and difficult time for her and her family. 

"We suspected that this day was coming and that it was coming soon," she said. "But it's still a lot to take in, and it is emotional and hard to fully express what this means." 

WATCH | Michael Kovrig's wife reacts to news of his upcoming trial:

'He works to transform anger into determination and grievance into resolve': Michael Kovrig's wife reacts to news of his upcoming trial

1 year ago
Duration 10:07
Vina Nadjibulla tells Power & Politics, the past few years have been a difficult journey but she's focused on bringing Michael Kovrig home, despite his upcoming trial in China.

Kovrig's employer, the International Crisis Group, issued a statement on Thursday again urging China to release him.

"From the moment he was detained, the political nature of his case has been clear. What happens in the Chinese legal system does not change this," said the organization's interim president, Richard Atwood.

"After 830 days imprisoned, Michael should be released immediately so he can return home to his loved ones."

Kevin Garratt recalls China trial

Kevin Garratt, the Canadian held for two years in China on charges of spying and stealing state secrets, told Power & Politics Thursday that he also had a closed trial. During the proceedings, he said, he was led into court in handcuffs and leg irons and was made to stand in front of three judges.

Watch: Canada needs to 'disengage to some extent' with China: Kevin Garratt:

Canada needs to 'disengage to some extent' with China: Kevin Garratt

1 year ago
Duration 6:44
Kevin Garratt, who was detained in China for more than two years, says that he thinks the Canadian government needs to "disengage to some extent" with China: "I think they really need to reconsider the relationship with China."

He said he had a lawyer to one side and an interpreter to the other — and his trial only lasted one day. 

"The problem was I couldn't really talk to my lawyer. I was never given permission to talk to him. I could never really, quote, defend myself," Garratt said.

He says he was kept in a small padded cell between appearances.

"I went in with hope," he said. "I left kind of shaking. I was very weak, very sick at that point."

After his trial, Garratt said he had to wait five months to find out that he was being deported and the only thing that gave him hope along the way was his faith in God.

You can watch full episodes of Power & Politics on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca


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