Canadian Michael Spavor found guilty of spying, sentenced to 11 years in prison by Chinese court

The verdict will further test the strained relationship between the Canadian and Chinese governments. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the sentence "absolutely unacceptable and unjust."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says sentence is 'absolutely unacceptable and unjust'

Michael Spavor — seen here in a file image made from a 2017 video — learned his verdict and sentence Wednesday in a court in Dandong, China. (File photo/The Associated Press)

Canadian Michael Spavor has been found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Chinese court in a verdict that will further test the strained relationship between the Canadian and Chinese governments.

Spavor is also being ordered deported by the court, though it is not immediately clear if that will happen before or after the 11-year prison sentence is served.

Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton, who attended Spavor's hearing in Dandong, a coastal city near the border with North Korea, said he believes it will occur after he completes his sentence.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this decision after a legal process that lacked both fairness and transparency," Barton said in a video address to diplomats and journalists gathered at the Canadian embassy.

Spavor was also convicted of illegally providing state secrets to other countries.

WATCH | Michael Spavor handed 11 years in prison in China on espionage conviction

Michael Spavor handed 11 years in prison in China on espionage conviction

1 year ago
Duration 4:49
Freelance reporter Patrick Fok reports from Beijing on the diplomatic solidarity shown for Michael Spavor at the Canadian embassy there. (AP Photo)

The verdict and sentencing mark a significant new development in Spavor's journey through the Chinese legal system, which Ottawa and other observers have decried for a perceived lack of transparency. 

The verdict arrived just over 24 hours after a different Chinese court upheld a death sentence for Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted on charges of drug smuggling.

The United States embassy in Beijing also condemned the sentencing, saying in a statement that proceedings against Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, who is charged with espionage, were an attempt to "use human beings as bargaining leverage."

Trudeau condemns sentence

Ottawa has called repeatedly on the Chinese government to release Spavor and Kovrig, who were both detained in what is widely seen as an act of retaliation following the arrest of the Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December, 2018.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the sentence "absolutely unacceptable and unjust."

"Today's verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law," Trudeau said in a statement early Wednesday.

Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton, second from left, arrives Wednesday at the Dandong city detention centre, where Canadian businessman Michael Spavor is being held for spying charges. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

Spavor was based in China but had extensive links with North Korea in tourism and other commercial ventures that brought him into contact with the isolated communist state's leadership.

 In a statement, Spavor's family said they disagreed with the charges and said the next step is to "bring Michael home."

"Michael's life passion has been to bring different cultures together through tourism and events shared between the Korean peninsula and other countries including China and Canada," the statement said. "This situation has not dampened but strengthened his passion."

The verdict in Spavor's case was delivered at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday — Wednesday morning in China. It also calls for the confiscation of approximately $10,000 of personal property.

Barton, who visited with Spavor following the verdict, said Spavor had three messages that he asked to be shared with the outside world: "Thank you for all your support," "I am in good spirits," and "I want to get home."

WATCH | Former diplomat discusses impact of Spavor's sentence: 

The potential impact of Michael Spavor’s sentence

1 year ago
Duration 2:57
Ben Roswell, former diplomat and president of the Canadian International Council, talks about the impact Michael Spavor’s sentencing will have on Michael Kovrig and China’s political positioning with Canada.

Canada and several of its international allies condemned that decision and have called on China to grant clemency in the case.

Ottawa maintains that Spavor and Kovrig, a former diplomat, were arbitrarily detained.

Kovrig's trial concluded in March but it's not clear when a verdict in his case will be delivered.

Meng, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, faces possible extradition to the United States for charges linked to violation of sanctions.

Her extradition hearings in Vancouver are currently in their last few weeks in B.C. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected sometime in the next few months.

Canada's Chargé d'affaires Jim Nickel speaks at the Canadian embassy in Beijing Wednesday as a court in Dandong ruled on Spavor's case. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

Links to Meng

Earlier, during a news conference in Shenyang, China, where the Schellenberg verdict was announced, Barton suggested the cases are linked to Meng's trial.

"I don't think it's a coincidence these are happening right now while events are going on in Vancouver," he told reporters Tuesday.

Speaking to Power & Politics Tuesday, Guy Saint-Jacques, a former ambassador to China, said that Canada should boycott next year's Beijing Olympics over China's handling of the Schellenberg case.

Schellenberg initially was handed a 15-year sentence before his punishment was upgraded to the death penalty following a retrial that lasted only one day.

The European Union also formally called on China to grant clemency to Schellenberg. A spokesperson for the EU raised concerns about due process and "arbitrariness" in the case.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau condemned Spavor's verdict "in the strongest possible terms."

"This decision is rendered after a legal process that lacked both fairness and transparency, including a trial that did not satisfy the minimum standards required by international law," he said in a statement.

With files from Katie Simpson, the Associated Press and Reuters

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now