China court sentences Canadian Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison for spying

Michael Spavor (right, on screen) was detained in 2018 along with compatriot Michael Kovrig.
Michael Spavor (right, on screen) was detained in 2018 along with compatriot Michael Kovrig.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING  - A Canadian businessman charged with spying after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has been sentenced to 11 years in prison, a day after another Canadian’s death sentence was upheld.

Michael Spavor, who has been under arrest since Dec 2018, was handed the jail sentence in Dandong city in north-east Liaoning province on Wednesday (Aug 11) morning.

A day earlier, another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, had his death sentence for drug trafficking upheld by a court in Shenyang city, also in Liaoning.

Spavor, whose hearing had taken place behind closed doors in March, was found guilty by the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court of stealing and supplying state secrets to other countries.

In a statement, the court also said it had confiscated Spavor’s personal assets worth 50,000 yuan (S$10,473) and that he would be deported.

Spavor, who worked in Dandong promoting investments and tourism in North Korea, was arrested at the same time as former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who has also been accused of spying. It is still not clear when he will be sentenced.

Canada's ambassador to China, Mr Dominic Barton, who met Spavor on Wednesday, said the latter had this message to convey: “Thank you for all your support, it means a lot to me. I’m in good spirits, and I want to get home.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Spavor’s conviction and sentencing “absolutely unacceptable and unjust”.

“The verdict for Mr Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process, and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law,” he said in a statement released shortly after the verdict was handed down.

China and Canada have been in a diplomatic stalemate after the Canadian authorities detained  telecom giant Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng in Dec 2018 on an extradition request by the United States to face fraud charges. Nine days after her arrest in Vancouver, China detained the two Canadians.

Meng returned to court on Aug 4 for what would be the final stage of her hearing.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that things are happening right now while events are going on in Vancouver,” Mr Barton told reporters on Tuesday in Shenyang.

Canada was expecting Spavor’s sentence to be between five and 20 years, he said.

Speaking to journalists gathered at the Canadian embassy in Beijing on Wednesday via a video link from Dandong, Mr Barton said: “Eleven years is a long time. So we will continue to work very, very hard to get him out and certainly a lot earlier than that."

Ambassadors from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, as well as senior diplomats from 25 mostly European countries but also the US and Japan, had gathered at the embassy to await the verdict on Spavor and to show their support.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Canadians' detentions and Spavor's sentence, and called for their immediate and unconditional release.

"The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable. People should never be used as bargaining chips," he said in a statement.

The European Union also said it had repeatedly urged China to abide by its international legal obligations.  

“His right to a fair trial and due process, including the right to a public hearing, as guaranteed under international human rights law and China’s Criminal Procedure Law, has not been upheld,” said a statement by the spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy. 

The court’s statement did not specify when Spavor would be deported, or if his nearly 1,000 days spent in detention would count towards his prison sentence.

“That deportation phrase was noted,” said Mr Barton.

Spavor’s spying charges apparently involve photographs of military aircraft he had taken at airports. 

He has 10 days to appeal his sentence.

In 2016, another Canadian, Christian aid worker and entrepreneur Kevin Garratt, was given an eight-year jail term after being found guilty of spying.

Like Spavor, his detention and conviction were also widely believed to have been part of China’s hostage-taking diplomacy, in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Chinese businessman who was wanted in the US for hacking into the databases of American defence contractors to steal military secrets.

Mr Garratt was deported to Canada just two days after his sentencing and about two weeks after Mr Trudeau discussed his case in his meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during his first official visit to China.