Trial of Michael Kovrig concludes with verdict to come later, Chinese court says

The Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court held a trial for Canadian Michael Kovrig on Monday and said it will set a date later for the verdict.

Kovrig, Michael Spavor have been detained for more than 2 years

Diplomats, including representatives from Canada and the U.S., stand outside the Beijing court where Michael Kovrig's trial is taking place. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The trial of Canadian Michael Kovrig, who has been held in China for more than two years on espionage charges, wrapped up in a closed Beijing courtroom on Monday with the verdict to be announced at an unspecified later date.

China arrested Kovrig, a former diplomat, and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor in December 2018, soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech company Huawei, on a U.S. warrant.

Beijing insists the detentions are not linked to the arrest of Meng, who remains under house arrest in Vancouver as she fights extradition to the United States.

In a statement posted around 6:30 p.m. local time, the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court said Kovrig appeared with his lawyer to face charges for spying on state secrets and providing intelligence outside the country. The statement said the verdict, like the one for Spavor, who was tried on Friday, would be announced at a later date.

The court said Kovrig's trial was held in private because the case involves state secrets.

Canadian official says access to trial denied

"We've requested access to Michael Kovrig's hearing repeatedly but that access is being denied" over national security reasons, said Jim Nickel, chargé d'affaires at the Embassy of Canada in China, outside the court in Beijing.

"Now we see that the court process itself is not transparent. We're very troubled by this."

Nickel said Canada would be registering its protest at the lack of access with China's foreign ministry.

WATCH | Canada's chargé d'affaires says Michael Kovrig's trial lacked transparency:

Verdict in Kovrig trial to be delivered at later date

1 year ago
Duration 1:46
Canadian Michael Kovrig was tried for espionage in a Beijing court today but no verdict was announced, in a process that Canada's chargé d'affaires, Jim Nickel, said lacked transparency.

In a show of solidarity, 28 diplomats from 26 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and Czech Republic, turned up outside the court on Monday, which was marked by a heavy police presence.

"[U.S.] President [Joe] Biden and [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken have said that in dealing with the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the United States will treat these two individuals as if they were American citizens," said Nickel.

'Arbitrary detention is not the way'

One of the U.S. Embassy's top diplomats in Beijing, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission William Klein, expressed his support for Kovrig and Spavor.

"The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with Canada in calling for the immediate release of their two citizens from arbitrary detention," Klein told reporters.

The trial of Kovrig, pictured in this file image made from a March 28, 2018 video, is underway in China, according to Jim Nickel, chargé d'affaires at the Embassy of Canada in China. (The Associated Press)

More than 50 countries signed a declaration in February to condemn the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens for political purposes.

"We are here to show solidarity. Arbitrary detention is not the way," another diplomat told Reuters, declining to be named as she was not authorized to speak on the record about the Canadians' trials.

Some diplomats took off their face masks as they posed for a group photo outside the court, with each shouting out which country they represented to help reporters identify them.

The Canadian side had assembled a group of diplomats to "point fingers" and was "wantonly interfering in China's judicial sovereignty," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

In a statement issued Monday morning, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said securing the release of Kovrig and Spavor is his top priority.

"We are deeply troubled by the total lack of transparency surrounding these hearings and we continue to work towards an immediate end to their arbitrary detention," Garneau said.

"The eyes of the world are on these cases and proceedings and I want to thank our international partners for their continued support and solidarity."

Garneau said, going forward, Canadian officials will continue to seek consular access to Kovrig and Spavor in accordance with international agreements on consular relations.

Nickel, centre, and William Klein, chargé d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in China, left, speak to media as they arrive to request entry to the closed trial for Kovrig on Monday in Beijing. (Getty Images)

Verdict to come in Spavor trial

On Friday, Spavor, a businessman, underwent a trial behind closed doors in a court in the northeastern city of Dandong. The court said it will set a date later for a verdict.

Canadian and other diplomats were not allowed to attend Spavor's trial on what China said were national security grounds, a lack of transparency that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called "completely unacceptable."

Observers have said the likely convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby they are released and sent back to Canada. Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99 per cent.

Earlier Sunday, Vina Nadjibulla, Kovrig's wife, praised recent public comments from Trudeau, Biden and Blinken in support of "the two Michaels," as they have become known around the world. 

But Nadjibulla said in an interview on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live that 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."

WATCH | Michael Kovrig's wife calls for end of detention ahead of trial:

Kovrig's wife calls for end of detention ahead of trial

1 year ago
Duration 2:02
The wife of Canadian Michael Kovrig, who was to stand trial Monday in China for alleged espionage, is calling for a diplomatic solution to end the detention of her husband as well as fellow jailed Canadian Michael Spavor.

Roland Paris, an international affairs professor at the University of Ottawa and former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, said Canada's diplomatic efforts are getting under China's skin.

"It is bothering Beijing and that is a good thing because it means that they are embarrassed by this attention," Paris said in an interview with CBC News Network.

He said U.S. influence will be key to resolving the dispute. He referenced a media report in the Wall Street Journal late last year that said U.S. Department of Justice officials were negotiating with Meng's lawyers about a possible deferred prosecution agreement that would allow her to return to China in exchange for admitting wrongdoing. A followup in February reported the talks had stalled.

"That's the kind of arrangement that could potentially see us get out of this situation and get our two citizens, who have been in jail now for over 800 days now, home," Paris said.

When asked about those negotiations in an interview on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken deferred to the DOJ. 

"All of these matters are matters for our Department of Justice to look at and consider. We follow the law. We follow the facts," he said. "And one of the things that we don't do is have politics or foreign policy interfere in the workings of the Justice Department."

With files from CBC News