China accuses detained ex-Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig of spying, stealing state secrets

China said Michael Kovrig had often entered the country using an ordinary passport and business visas, "stealing and spying on sensitive Chinese information and intelligence via a contact in China". PHOTO: REUTERS
Businessman Michel Spavor is said to have passed Chinese state secrets on to another Canadian man. He was arrested in early December. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China on Monday (March 4) accused detained Canadian citizen Michael Kovrig of stealing state secrets which were passed on to him from another detained Canadian, Michael Spavor, in a move likely to further ramp up tension between Ottawa and Beijing.

Businessman Spavor, who worked with North Korea, and former diplomat Kovrig were picked up in early December, shortly after Canada arrested Huawei Technologies chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who faces extradition to the United States.

China has repeatedly demanded that Meng be released, and reacted angrily last week when Canada's government approved extradition proceedings against her.

In a short statement on its microblog, the ruling Communist Party's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said Kovrig had often entered China using an ordinary passport and business visas, "stealing and spying on sensitive Chinese information and intelligence via a contact in China".

"Spavor was Kovrig's main contact and provided him with intelligence," the commission added, without giving details.

Kovrig severely violated Chinese laws, and China will start the next judicial proceedings in due course, it said.

"China is a country with rule of law and will firmly crack down on criminal acts that severely undermine national security."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said about the accusations on Monday: "We are obviously very concerned with this position that China has taken."

"We've been engaging and standing up for the two Canadians who have been arbitrarily detained by China from the very beginning."

Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group (ICG), which focuses on conflict resolution and has denied any involvement in espionage. It said it had heard nothing official about any charges.

"Michael's work for Crisis Group has been entirely transparent and in the open," spokesman Karim Lebhour said."Vague and unsubstantiated accusations against him are unwarranted and unfair."

While Canada says China has made no specific link between the detentions and Meng's arrest, experts and former diplomats say they have no doubt it is using the cases of the two men to pressure Canada.

Canadian diplomats have been allowed to see the two men.

However, sources familiar with the case have said Kovrig has not been allowed access to lawyers or family members, unlike Huawei's Meng. It is not clear what conditions Spavor is being held in.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the detainees would come under increased pressure to talk about people they had met.

"They'll be told that if they confess to something they may be able to expect a degree of leniency," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "They'll also probably be asked to see if they can put pressure on Canadian officials who visit them to see if they can secure the release of Ms Meng."

China has said it is fully guaranteeing both men's lawful rights. Kovrig also holds Hungarian citizenship.

Canada arrested Meng on Dec 1 as she was changing planes in the city of Vancouver, at the request of the US, which has filed sweeping charges against Huawei and Meng that paint the company as a national security threat.

Meng has been charged with bank and wire fraud to violate US sanctions against Iran. She is free on bail and denies the charges against her.

Separately, Huawei plans to announce a lawsuit against the US government on Thursday on grounds related to a defence bill, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.