OTTAWA (AFP) - A Canadian court on Monday (Jan 20) will consider a US request to hand over Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou, whose arrest 13 months ago on fraud charges plunged Canada-China relations into a deep freeze.
The extradition hearing comes after Beijing detained two Canadians and blocked billions of dollars worth of Canadian agricultural shipments in apparent retaliation for Meng's arrest.
Taking her into custody also stuck Canada in the middle of a row between China and the United States, which views Huawei as a security risk.
Some observers are hoping for her release at the end of the five-day hearing focused on whether the US accusations are also a crime in Canada. This is a key test in determining if she should be extradited to the US to face trial.
Others - including a former Canadian prime minister - are urging Justice Minister David Lametti to step in and quash the proceedings and release Meng in a bid to normalise Canada-China relations.
"The minister of justice has the power to stop extradition proceedings at any time," legal scholar Gary Botting told AFP, noting it has been done in other cases on compassionate grounds.
China's ambassador to Canada, Mr Cong Peiwu, has said Meng's release was a "precondition" for improved bilateral ties.
Ottawa, however, has maintained it will not interfere in the legal process, while enlisting allies' help in pressuring Beijing to release the two Canadians.
"The most obvious way to end this is to release her," Dr Botting said, adding that Ottawa was "naive" to jeopardise its own interests to satisfy the US extradition request.
"It was predictable that China would not be happy, and Canada could have avoided the fallout," he said.
Meng was arrested on Dec 1, 2018, after disembarking on a stopover from a Hong Kong to Mexico flight, prompting an angry response from Beijing.
SANCTIONS-BUSTING BANK FRAUD
The US alleges Meng lied to HSBC about Huawei's relationship with its Iran-based affiliate Skycom, putting the bank at risk of violating US sanctions against Iran.
"Simply put, there is evidence she deceived HSBC in order to induce it to continue to provide banking services to Huawei," the US justice department said in court filings.
Meng has denied the allegations. She has been out on bail, living in one of her two Vancouver mansions for the past year, awaiting trial.
The US justice department has said in arguing for her extradition that the fraud allegations against Meng would be considered a crime in Canada if they had occurred here.
Her lawyers, however, insist the misrepresentations do not amount to fraud, but rather are an attempt by the US to enforce its sanctions against Iran - which Canada has not matched.
Meng's father and Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei told the Globe and Mail that he had thought his daughter's arrest was due to a "misunderstanding", but after the US imposed strict export controls on Huawei in May, he sensed the US was plotting "to crush Huawei, and Meng Wanzhou was only used as a pawn".
Chinese officials speaking to their Canadian counterparts have also reportedly cast her arrest as "a Canadian-US political conspiracy".
Former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien and his former deputy John Manley have urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to simply release Meng in what Mr Manley described as a "prisoner swop" for former Canadian diplomat Michael Spavor and businessman Michael Kovrig.
The pair were, as Ottawa claims, "arbitrarily detained" nine days after Meng's arrest and accused of espionage.
That, however, risks legitimising Beijing's "hostage diplomacy" tactics, according to leading extradition experts consulted by AFP.
Some warned such a move could also strain Canada-US ties.
But Dr Botting opined: "I don't think the US would give it a second thought if Canada refused to extradite her.
"Canada has been swept up in this, but the US couldn't give a damn, frankly," he said.
If the judge rules that the so-called double criminality test has not been met, Meng could be freed as early as the end of next week.
Otherwise, the hearing will proceed to a second phase in June when defence arguments that Canadian and US authorities conspired to nab Meng as part of a "covert criminal investigation" would be heard.