Michael Spavor's trial in China ends without a ruling
'It's not been a transparent process,' says Canadian diplomat after trial
The court hearing for Canadian citizen Michael Spavor, detained by China since late 2018 on suspicion of espionage, ended on Friday after around two hours with no ruling.
Spavor and his lawyer appeared for the closed hearing, and the court will later set a date to issue a decision, the Dandong Intermediate People's Court said in a statement on its website.
Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99 per cent
The 45-year-old businessman was not seen outside the court and there was no word on his condition.
Officials from the Canadian embassy and other nations including the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Germany were present outside the court as they sought access to the hearing. They were not allowed to enter.
Jim Nickel, chargé d'affaires at the Canadian Embassy in China, criticized the proceedings, telling reporters outside the courthouse: "It's not been a transparent process."
Diplomats refused entry
Sidewalks were roped off with police tape and journalists were kept at a distance as police cars and vans with lights flashing entered the court complex, located beside the Yalu River that divides China from North Korea.
Nickel knocked on a door to the court seeking entry but was refused. He was told the trial would begin at 10 a.m. but was given no word on how long it would last or when a verdict would be announced.
"The reason that has been given is it's a so-called national security case and their belief is that the domestic law overrides international law, which in fact is not the case. China does have international obligations to allow consular access," he said.
Nickel told reporters it's been "an emotional time" for Spavor, his family and Canadians in general.
"It's been more than two years that he has been held arbitrarily in detention here in China."
Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in December 2018, days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the request of the U.S. at the airport in Vancouver. The U.S. is seeking her extradition to face fraud charges related to her company's dealings with Iran.
The two Canadians have been held ever since, while Meng has been released on bail. They were charged in June 2020 with spying under China's national security laws.
Spavor, an entrepreneur with a North Korea-related business, was charged with spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets. Kovrig, an analyst and former diplomat, was charged with spying for state secrets and intelligence in collaboration with Spavor.
Canadian officials last saw Spavor on Feb. 3 and had made multiple requests to see him ahead of the trial, Nickel said, but those requests were denied.
Trial coincides with U.S-China talks
On the street opposite the courthouse on Friday, another 10 diplomats from eight countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, stood in a show of support.
Observers have said the likely convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby the two men are released and sent back to Canada.
The trial dates were announced by Canada just as the United States and China were preparing to hold high-level talks in Alaska, the first since U.S. President Joe Biden took office, which have proven to be contentious.
China on Thursday denied a link to those talks.
International and bilateral treaties required that China provide Canadian diplomats access to the trial, but the court said Chinese law regarding trials on state security charges overrode such obligations, Nickel said.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson reiterated that position at a briefing in Beijing a few hours after the trial concluded.
Responding to a reporter's question about the Canadian side's complaints, Zhao Lijian said that since the case involves state secrets, it is not heard in open court and no one is allowed to sit in on the trial.
Lijian also said that Chinese authorities will continue to deal with consular visits for the Canadians in accordance with the law as the pandemic situation evolves.
Prior to the trial, the U.S. expressed its support for the two Canadians.
"The United States is deeply alarmed by reports that People's Republic of China (PRC) authorities are commencing trials for Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig on March 19 and 22, respectively," Katherine Brucker, U.S. chargé d'affaires in Ottawa, said in a statement.
"We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release and continue to condemn the lack of minimum procedural protections during their two-year arbitrary detention."
Prosecutors have not released details of the charges and trial proceedings in national security cases are generally held behind closed doors. The state-owned Global Times newspaper said Kovrig was accused of having used an ordinary passport and business visa to enter China to steal sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017, while Spavor was accused of being a key source of intelligence for Kovrig.
Extradition hearing in Vancouver for Meng
In Vancouver on Thursday, Meng's lawyers told an extradition hearing that Canadian officials abused their power when they conspired with the U.S. to arrest her. Defence lawyer Tony Paisana said Canadian Border Services Agency officers took Meng's phones and obtained their passwords, then handed them to Canadian police so the data could be shared with the FBI.
Paisana said Meng was never told during questioning that she faced an arrest warrant in the U.S. and would have immediately asked for a lawyer if so informed. British Columbia Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes suggested border officers would have questioned Meng more rigorously if their exam was actually a covert criminal investigation, as her lawyers said.
China has demanded Meng's immediate and unconditional release, saying the U.S. engineered her detention as part of a drive to contain China's growing rise. Canadian authorities say Kovrig and Spavor were arbitrarily arrested to put pressure on Ottawa and say they should be released without charge.
China has also restricted various Canadian exports, including canola oil seed, and handed death sentences to another four Canadians convicted of drug smuggling.
Kevin Garratt, another Canadian who was detained in China for almost two years on accusations of spying, offered some insight into the court process to which Spavor might be subjected.
"The problem was I couldn't really talk to my lawyer ... I was never given permission to talk to him," Garratt, who was released in 2016, said on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Thursday. "I could never really defend myself."
WATCH | Garratt says it's time for Canada to rethink its relationship with China:
Garratt, who was held in the same prison as Spavor, said he entered his own court process with hope, but got the feeling the trial didn't matter.
"I don't think it will be any different for him," Garratt said of Spavor. "And it's just a horrible, horrible feeling. And the whole prison system and judicial system in China is made to make you feel hopeless."
With files from The Associated Press, CBC News