China formally arrests detained Canadian ex-diplomat, businessman

Protesters hold photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside British Columbia Supreme Court, in Vancouver on March 6, 2019.
Protesters hold photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside British Columbia Supreme Court, in Vancouver on March 6, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING • China said yesterday that it has formally arrested two Canadians who have been de-tained for months on national security grounds, in a case that has inflamed tensions between Ottawa and Beijing.

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig is "suspected of collecting state secrets and intelligence", while businessman Michael Spavor is suspected of "stealing and illegally offering state secrets" abroad, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular briefing.

Mr Lu said yesterday that the two were arrested recently, but did not provide a date, and added that he had no information about where they were being held.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail newspaper, the Canadian Foreign Ministry said that "Canada strongly condemns their arbitrary arrest as we condemned their arbitrary detention on Dec 10".

Though no link has been officially made, the detention of Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig is thought to be in retaliation for Canada's decision on a US extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, a top executive of Chinese telecom giant Huawei who is accused of violating Iran sanctions.

The men were first accused of activities that "endanger China's security", a phrase often used by Beijing when alleging espionage.

Days after Meng's extradition was announced, China said it suspected Mr Kovrig, who works for the International Crisis Group think-tank, of spying and stealing state secrets, and alleged that Mr Spavor - who organised trips to North Korea - had provided him with intelligence.


Spying charges could expose them to tough prison sentences.

Both men have been denied access to lawyers and allowed only monthly consular visits. The latest such visit came earlier this week.

No details of the men's detention or health conditions were provided due to Canadian privacy laws, but officials said they would press for further access to both detainees.

Mr Lu said the "Chinese judicial authorities are handling the cases according to law", and that Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig's "legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed".

A group of Canadian parliamentarians had earlier complained to Chinese officials that the two have been denied access to lawyers and remain in "completely unacceptable" detention conditions.

Meng is allowed to live in her Vancouver mansion, with limited mobility. She made her latest court appearance last week as she fights extradition to the US. She was ordered to wear an electronic anklet and hand over her passports after being released on bail in mid-December on a C$10 million (S$10.2 million) bond.

Meanwhile, two other Canadians convicted of drug trafficking have been sentenced to death. Canada has called the death penalties for Fen Wei and Robert Lloyd Schellenberg "cruel and inhumane".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2019, with the headline 'China formally arrests detained Canadian ex-diplomat, businessman'. Print Edition | Subscribe