Spy trial concluded for second Canadian detained in China, no verdict

Police officers stand guard outside Intermediate People's Court where Canadian Michael Kovrig is expected to be on trial in Beijing, on March 22, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING/OTTAWA (AFP) - Canada's prime minister vowed to keep up pressure on China to release two Canadians after the trial of Michael Kovrig, one of the pair detained in China on spying charges, ended on Monday (March 22) with no verdict.

The hearing for the former diplomat came days after the closed-door trial of Canadian businessman Michael Spavor.

Both have been detained for more than two years in apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest on a US extradition warrant of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Kovrig, a former diplomat, was detained in 2018 and formally charged last June with spying. Spavor was also charged with spying.

"We will continue to be very, very clear that their arbitrary detention is unacceptable. We will continue to demand their release," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference.

Mr Trudeau emphasised there was no connection between sanctions unveiled by the European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada against China over its crackdown of its Uighur Muslim minority and the prosecution of the two Canadians.

"There is no connection between these two events," Mr Trudeau told reporters.

Canada's foreign minister, Marc Garneau, said Ottawa is "deeply troubled" by the "unacceptable ordeal" faced by the two men, and called for "an immediate end to their arbitrary detention".

"The eyes of the world are on these cases and proceedings," he said.

Western democracies show solidarity

On Monday, police cordoned off an area outside the Beijing court as Canadian diplomats were denied entry and turned away.

Mr Jim Nickel, the charge d'affaires of Canada's embassy in Beijing, told reporters that he was "very troubled by the lack of access and lack of transparency in the legal process".

The trial lasted one day before the court issued a statement saying that the proceeding had concluded and it would "choose a date to announce the verdict in accordance with the law".

Kovrig and his lawyer were present in the court for the case of "spying on state secrets and intelligence for foreign powers," the statement said.

Representatives of 26 countries - including Australia, Britain, France, Germany and the United States - gathered outside the building, Mr Nickel said, and were "lending their voice" for Kovrig's immediate release.

Protesters hold photos of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in Vancouver, on March 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

A court official told reporters no entry was allowed because the trial is a national security case.

Both Mr Trudeau and Mr Garneau thanked the diplomats for their show of solidarity and "echoing Canada's message that these detentions are unacceptable".

"We have seen to what extent countries from all over the world have joined in the concerns of Canadians for the wellbeing of the two Michaels and also for the principles of the rule of law and the values we hold dear as democracies," Mr Trudeau commented.

Canadian diplomats were also barred from attending Spavor's trial in the Chinese city of Dandong on Friday, which lasted less than three hours and ended without a verdict.

Following that closed-door hearing, Mr Trudeau called the two mens' detention "completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings".

China's foreign ministry defended the order to block the diplomats from entering the court, and criticised those gathering outside as "very unreasonable".

"Be it a few or dozens of diplomats trying to gather and exert pressure, it is an interference in China's judicial sovereignty... and not something that a diplomat should do," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

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Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig stood trial in a Beijing courthouse Monday on spying charges, days after tense bilateral talks between the US and China, and more than two years after he and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor were arrested.

'A political case'

The court dates for the two Canadians come as an extradition hearing for Meng enters its final months, and alongside fiery high-level talks between the US and China in Alaska.

Meng, whose father is Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, has been fighting extradition to the United States on charges that she and the company violated US sanctions on Iran and other laws.

While Kovrig's trial was still ongoing Canada's former ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, told AFP he expected proceedings will be short.

"China does not even try to make this look like a real trial, as evidence is not shared with the defence and the judge does not even take the time to review it," he said ahead of the hearing.

"It just confirms that the process is pre-ordained by the Communist Party and this is a political case."

China's judicial system convicts most people who stand trial and the two Canadians face up to life in prison if found guilty of espionage and providing state secrets.

Kovrig and Spavor have had almost no contact with the outside world since their detention, and virtual consular visits only resumed in October after a nine-month hiatus that authorities said was due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Beijing has insisted the detention of the two men is lawful, while calling Meng's case "a purely political incident".

"The message to the USA is: if you want to help the Canadians, make sure that Meng is returned quickly to China," said Saint-Jacques.

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