As It Happens

Michael Kovrig's release requires same level of diplomacy he practised in China, boss says

It's been one year today since Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was detained in China. And his boss, Robert Malley, says he's in awe of his colleague's resilience and humour behind bars.

The Canadian diplomat has been detained in China for a year

Michael Kovrig was taken into custody in China in mid-December 2018. (The Canadian Press/The Associated Press)
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It's now been a full year since Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in China.

The two Canadians were picked up after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on extradition charges, at the request of the United States.

Chinese officials accuse Kovrig and Spavor of violating state secrecy laws. But to date, no charges have been laid and both remain detained with no end in sight.

Robert Malley is the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group — and Michael Kovrig's boss.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Malley about his colleague. Here is part of their conversation.

After a year spent behind bars, do you think Chinese officials are any closer to releasing your colleague Michael Kovrig?

I wish I could answer that question.

The Chinese authorities announced today that his case was being referred to [a] prosecutor. But it's not as if China's justice system is one that is entirely transparent, to put it mildly.

It's not clear what that means in terms of the pace at which his case might, or might not, be brought to trial, how long the trial would last, what parts of it would be made public.

So at this point, all we can do is wait and see and hope for the best.

People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on March 6. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

You have not been able to visit your colleague. But you have been in touch with those [who have]. He gets a half-hour visit by the Canadian consul official each month. What do you understand about how he's doing?

A lot of this is really privacy matters that I think members of his family should decide whether they want to divulge or not. What I could say is that these are not good conditions. These are pretty terrible conditions.

First and foremost, because he knows that he is unjustly detained. He doesn't actually know why he was picked up.

He has a pretty good sense of what was happening in Canada a week earlier when Ms. Meng, chief financial officer of Huawei, was detained on extradition charges to the U.S., and so he knows he is a Canadian citizen and he knows that she was arrested a week before. And so, I think it's pretty clear that that's why he's there.

But he knows he did nothing wrong. He doesn't know how long he's going to be there. He doesn't know when he's going to see anyone that he loves or even a lawyer. And one could imagine what that's doing to his mental state.

But I would add, and to the extent that I could comment on what I'm hearing about his conditions, is that he is going through this with a sense of hope and of generosity and caring for others.

I understand he also has a sense of humour, at least as best as one can.

That's right, and that's another thing that never ceases to amaze me.

Nobody can prepare for this kind of fate. So I guess nobody really knows how he or she is going to fare under those conditions.

But he's learned a lot about himself and about others, and as you say, he's kept a sense of humour. And I know that does a world of good to the people who love him and who, when they hear that, think that, despite all, he's managed to maintain so much of what makes him such an exceptional human being.

Robert Malley, CEO at the International Crisis Group, was a former U.S. negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

As you know, the Trudeau government is being criticized for not taking a tougher line with China. But I know you've written that Michael's own work had been to bridge differences between China and the West. But if you could consult Michael, what advice do you think he would give on how his detention should be handled?

Well, first of all, you're right. He loved China. And the reason he joined Crisis Group, after he was a Canadian diplomat stationed in China, was he wanted to stay there, and he couldn't if he'd remained as a Canadian diplomat. So he stayed with us.

I don't know what advice he would give us. It is a very good question. I haven't thought about it. I certainly don't know what advice he'd give us about how to deal with his case.

I do think that he would still say, despite everything that happened to him, China is too important a country, China is a country that can play such a powerful role on the world stage.

It needs, we need, to continue to engage, talk, understand where China's coming from, and try to explain to China what's happening in some of the countries that it's involved in and what it could do to promote peace, stability, security.

I think that's what he would do. But we'll have to wait for when he gets out and hopefully that will be soon enough for him to share his wisdom.


Written by Kevin Robertson and John McGill. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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