Friend worried about detained Canadian after fundraising effort shut down

A friend of Michael Spavor says he worries about the detained Canadian's well-being and financial future now that an online fundraising effort in his name has been derailed.

'We wanted to help buy him some time while he figures out what's next'

In this image taken from a March 2, 2017, video, Michael Spavor, director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, talks during a Skype interview in Yangi, China. A friend of Michael Spavor says he is worried about the detained Canadian's well-being and financial future now that an online fundraising effort in his name has been derailed. (Associated Press)

A friend of Michael Spavor says he worries about the detained Canadian's well-being and financial future now that an online fundraising effort in his name has been derailed.​

Andray Abrahamian, a lecturer at Stanford University in California, was among the organizers of a GoFundMe campaign for Spavor, arrested last month in China for allegedly endangering Chinese national security.

"I worry about many things, starting with his health and emotional well-being," Abrahamian said Monday.

GoFundMe said the campaign in Spavor's name was shut down because its third-party payment processor, which made the decision, was unable to handle the donations.

GoFundMe spokeswoman Rachel Hollis would not elaborate on the reason, but said the fundraising portal relies on such processors to make sure money transfers made online "are securely processed and verified, helping us to keep GoFundMe the safest place to donate online."

The backers were told "it was for a 'terms and conditions' violation, but nothing more specific than that," Abrahamian said.

"Basically, nearly everybody's money was refunded Friday without notice, then the next day the page was shut down."

Abrahamian told CBC News that, notwithstanding GoFundMe's explanation for why the campaign was shuttered, he believes it's more likely the fundraising website was worried about falling afoul of sanctions against North Korea.

"If I had to guess, it would be the fact that Michael works in North Korea and with North Koreans," he said. "These days U.S. sanctions are such that any financial institution has to be incredibly worried about any kind of transactions that could be connected to North Korea.

"Even if they suspect it might be connected to North Korea, it's generally worth it for them to put a stop to that kind of transaction."

U.S. and Canada standing together

Spavor is director of the Paektu Cultural Exchange, an organization that facilitates sporting, cultural, tourism and business exchanges with North Korea — a largely isolated country subject to a number of international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

He and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on leave from Global Affairs Canada, were taken into Chinese custody on security grounds in December. The actions came just days after Canadian authorities in Vancouver arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive with Chinese firm Huawei Technologies, who is wanted by the U.S. on fraud charges.

Since Kovrig and Spavor were detained, both the Canadian and U.S. governments have called for their immediate release. That position was reaffirmed earlier today in a phone call between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump.

"The prime minister thanked the president for the strong statements of support by the United States in response to the arbitrary detention of two Canadians in China. The two leaders agreed to continue to seek their release," said a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office today.

Legal and recovery funding

Abrahamian said the fundraising effort was intended to create "a little pot of money" to help with Spavor's legal fees and other costs and, when the stressful experience is over, to aid his recovery and readjustment.

"Once the issue with China is resolved, he probably won't be able to transit through that country, meaning he won't be able to continue his work promoting exchanges," Abrahamian said.

"So we wanted to help buy him some time while he figures out what's next. We also were hoping his family could use the money to have his possessions collected and shipped back to Canada.

"We're trying to figure out how to best solicit donations again, but are afraid we won't be as successful as this past attempt. It was Christmastime, after all."

In an interview with CBC News Abrahamian said it is his hope that Spavor's case does not drift from the public consciousness as time passes. 

"I really hope the Canadian public doesn't forget about these two Canadians that are detained in China," he said. "As the weeks turn into months it is easy to forget about. We hope that people continue to pay attention."

Many western analysts see China's detention of the Canadians as retaliation for Ottawa's co-operation to date with the U.S. on Meng's pending extradition.

Kovrig and Spavor have each had a single consular visit from John McCallum, Canada's ambassador to China.

Canada has expressed deep concern about the "arbitrary detention" of the men in calling for their immediate release.

The latest setback for Spavor comes as a Canadian parliamentary delegation, long scheduled to visit China, does what it can to help secure the pair's freedom.

A Monday opinion piece in the China Daily newspaper, published by the country's Communist Party, accused Canada of acting "as a loyal adherent of the U.S. in the Meng detention drama."

"By continuing to follow the U.S., either passively or actively, Canada will eventually harm its national interests," said the article by Li Qingsi, a professor of international studies at Renmin University in China. "If Canada insists on following the old track, it may not benefit much from a big trading partner like China."

With files from the CBC's Philip Ling


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