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Detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig

International incident

Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor (right)

In December 2018, Canadian nationals Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were taken into custody in China. It appeared that their detention on December 10 and subsequent indictment under the state secrets law were linked to the arrest of Huawei telecoms executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada on December 1.[1] In English-language media, the pair is frequently and colloquially referred to as the Two Michaels.[2][3][4]

Following their detention, the men were transferred to detention facilities where they were interrogated for up to eight hours a day. The lights in their cells were reportedly left on 24 hours a day, and they were denied access to consular officials and to their lawyers.[1] Prior to his detention and arrest, Kovrig was working for the International Crisis Group out of its Hong Kong office. He previously worked for the United Nations and as a Canadian diplomat.[5] Spavor had been a consultant and the director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, an organization that promotes investment and tourism in North Korea.[6]

On September 24, 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Kovrig and Spavor had been released from detention in China after 1,019 days, shortly after Meng was released from house arrest in Canada.[7]

Background

Michael Spavor

Michael Spavor was a consultant working in North Korea. He is a founding member and director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, an NGO that facilitates sports, cultural, tourism and business exchanges with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea).[8][9][10]

Michael Kovrig

Michael Kovrig (born February 3, 1972)[11] is a Canadian-Hungarian[12] former diplomat who worked for the International Crisis Group, a transnational, pro-peace think tank. After being detained in December 2018, he was accused of espionage by the Chinese government in May 2019. His arrest is widely considered[13][14] to be political retaliation for the arrest of Meng,[15][16] though the Chinese government has denied any connection between the two cases.[17]

Kovrig is the grandson of the Austrian-born industrialist Joseph Kuchar, who immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1951 and founded the Record Chemical Company (Recochem) in Montreal.[18][19]

Kovrig attended Royal St. George's College in Toronto and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1994.[20][18] In 2003 he graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in international affairs.[18] Kovrig is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.[5] He worked for a time after graduation at the United Nations Development Programme in New York City and in Kabul, Afghanistan where he met his wife Vina Nadjibulla.[21][5]

From 2010 to 2016, Kovrig worked for Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was stationed in Hong Kong and Beijing from 2012 to 2016.[22]

From 1996 to 1999, Kovrig was the singer of the Hungarian punk rock band Bankrupt. On July 15, 2021, Bankrupt released the song Pekingi nyár (Beijing Summer) and its English-language version The Plane To Toronto, in protest of his detention. The band announced that all proceeds from the song were to be donated to Hostage International, at the request of Kovrig's family.[23]

Arrest of Meng Wanzhou

The detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor followed the arrest of Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities. Meng was the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, founded by her father Ren Zhengfei.[24] She was arrested at the Vancouver International Airport by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at the request of the United States, pursuant to the extradition treaty between Canada and the United States.[25][26] On January 28, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced financial fraud charges against Meng.[27][28] If proven guilty, Meng potentially faced up to 10 years' imprisonment per 18 U.S.C. § 1832.[29]

Arrest and detention

Kovrig joined the International Crisis Group in February 2017 as a senior adviser for North East Asia.[5] On December 10, 2018, Michael Kovrig was detained in Beijing around the same time as Michael Spavor, a Canadian consultant with a personal relationship with Kim Jong-un and a history of working with North Korea.[30] The prosecutors of the People's Republic of China charged the two Canadians with espionage endangering China's national security. If proven, such a crime may result in life sentences or more, to ensure the nondisclosure of illegally gathered intelligence. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called their arrest "arbitrary".[31]

In March 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Kovrig was permitted by the Chinese government to have a telephone conversation with his sick father.[32]

Chinese legal proceedings

On June 19, 2020, the men were formally charged with spying on national secrets and providing state secrets to entities outside of China.[1][33]

In the lead-up to the first high-level diplomatic talks between Chinese officials and American officials working for Joe Biden, Spavor and Kovrig's trial dates were announced. On March 19, 2021, a two-hour closed court hearing for Spavor ended with no immediate verdict and Dandong Intermediate people's court stating that it would set a date to release a decision later. Because the case involved Chinese national security law, the chargé d'affaires at the Canadian Embassy in China was denied entry to provide consular assistance. Diplomats from the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Germany also sought access but were denied. Kovrig's trial was scheduled for March 22.[34] It ended with the identical statement - that the verdict will be announced at an unspecified later date.[35]

On August 10, 2021, the Dandong Intermediate People's Court found Michael Spavor guilty of espionage. The evidence presented at the trial, if any, was not made public.[36] Spavor was sentenced to eleven years in prison, in addition to the confiscation of ¥50,000, and his deportation. The statement released by the court did not specify when the deportation would take place, but China typically deports convicted foreigners after the completion of their prison sentence.[37][38][39][40]

Canada's Ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, accused the Chinese government of timing Spavor's verdict, as well as that of Robert Schellenberg one day prior, to coincide with that of Meng, which was occurring simultaneously in Canada.[41]

Michael Kovrig was tried on March 22, 2021; the verdict was to be announced at an unspecified later date.[35] The trials were held in closed sessions[35] in accordance with China's rules of criminal procedure for national security cases.[42] As of August 11, 2021, the verdict was still unknown to the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau.[43]

International response

Their arrest became a subsequent point of contention for Canada–China relations.[44]

On January 21, 2019, more than 220 political and academic individuals signed a letter calling on China to release Kovrig and Spavor.[45]

On April 23, 2020, the 500th day of Kovrig's detention, Trudeau said consular visits for the detained Canadians were being blocked on account of the coronavirus lockdown.[46]

On September 5, 2021, a "March for the Michaels" was held in Ottawa to mark the thousandth day of Spavor and Kovrig's detention.[47] Organized and attended by the families of the two Michaels, about 150 people gathered to walk 7000 steps, meant to replicate the 7000 steps Kovrig took daily to maintain fitness in his prison cell.[48][49]

Release

On September 24, 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the two Michaels were released and returning to Canada on a plane with Canadian Ambassador to China, Dominic Barton.[50][51] Their release came on the same day that Meng was released after the dropping of her extradition request as part of her deferred prosecution agreement with the US Department of Justice.[52][53] Kovrig and Spavor arrived at Calgary International Airport the next morning, where they were greeted by Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. Spavor remained in Calgary, while Kovrig flew to Toronto Pearson International Airport to meet his wife and family.[54]

At a press conference held on September 27, China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying maintained that the cases of Meng and the two Michaels were separate, stating that the two had "applied for release on bail for medical reasons".[55]

References

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