China concludes espionage trial of Canadian Michael Spavor behind closed doors

Police officers stand guard at an entrance of the Intermediate People's Court where Michael Spavor is expected to stand trial in Liaoning province, China, on March 19, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

DANDONG, CHINA (REUTERS) - The trial of Canadian citizen Michael Spavor, detained by China since late 2018 on suspicion of espionage, ended on Friday (March 19) after a closed-court hearing of around two hours, in a case embroiled in a wider diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing.

Spavor and his lawyer appeared for the hearing and the court will later set a date to issue a verdict, the Dandong Intermediate People's Court said in a statement on its website.

Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99 per cent.

The 45-year-old Canadian businessman was not seen outside the court and there was no word on his condition.

China arrested Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig in December 2018, soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies, on a United States 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 US.

Kovrig, a former diplomat, is due to go on trial on Monday in Beijing.

Police set up a cordon on Friday morning outside the Dandong Intermediate People's Court, which sits along the Yalu River opposite North Korea, the isolated country that Spavor regularly visited in his business career.

Officials from the Canadian embassy and other nations including United States, Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Germany had also been present outside the court as they sought access to the hearing.

They were not allowed to enter.

"We are disappointed in the lack of access and the lack of transparency," Mr Jim Nickel, Charge d'affaires of the Canadian Embassy in China, told reporters ahead of the trial.

"The reason that has been given is it's a so-called national security case and their belief is that the domestic law overrides international law, which in fact is not the case. China does have international obligations to allow consular access," he said.

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Mr Nickel said Canadian officials last saw Spavor on Feb 3 and had made multiple requests to see him ahead of the trial, but those requests were denied.

Observers have said the expected convictions of both men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby the two men are released and sent back to Canada.

The trial dates were announced by Canada just as the US and China were preparing to hold high-level talks in Alaska, the first since US President Joe Biden took office, which have proven to be contentious.

China denied on Thursday that the trials are linked to those talks.

Mr Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the timing of the trials was clearly designed to coincide with the talks between the US and China, which wants to pressure the Biden administration to arrange for Meng's release.

"It's fair to say that at this stage, the solution has to come from Washington... (Canada) is stuck in this geopolitical game that is going on between the United States and China," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday.

"We are in a very tough position because in fact, unfortunately at this stage, there is nothing that the Canadian government can do."

In a statement, Spavor's family called for the unconditional release of both men.

"Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman who has done extraordinary things to build constructive ties between Canada, China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," they said.

"He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people."

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