Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said today Canada will appeal the 11-year sentence a Chinese court gave Michael Spavor — one of two Canadians detained in China in what are widely seen as acts of retaliation in response to the arrest of a Chinese tech executive.
Spavor was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Chinese court Tuesday night (this morning local time) in Dandong, a coastal city near the border with North Korea. He also was convicted of illegally providing state secrets to other countries.
Garneau said the sentencing lacked fairness and transparency.
“Fundamentally, we know that the practice of arbitrary detention with a mock sham trial with absolutely no transparency whatsoever, and a verdict that is completely unjustified, are not acceptable in terms of international rules-based law,” he told a press conference this morning.
WATCH | Garneau on Spavor and Schellenberg verdicts in China
Ottawa has called repeatedly on the Chinese government to release both Spavor and Michael Kovrig, another Canadian accused of espionage. Both men were taken into custody by Chinese authorities following the arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December, 2018.
Fight for release continues
Garneau said the government is engaged in intense discussions with high-level Chinese and American officials to secure their release. He would not go into specifics about those conversations.
“The discussions, I will say, are with respect to finding a way to secure the release of the two Michaels, and I’ll leave it at that,” he said
The Chinese court also ordered that Spavor be deported — although it’s not immediately clear whether that would happen before or after the 11-year prison sentence is served.
WATCH | The potential impact of Michael Spavor’s sentence:
Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, attended Spavor’s hearing. He said he believes the deportation would happen only after he completes his sentence. Garneau said the government is seeking clarity.
Former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques — who played a role in securing the release of Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt — said that lack of clarity could suggest the outlines of a deal with Beijing.
The Garratts were arrested by Chinese security officials in 2014 and accused of spying and stealing military secrets. Julia was released on bail pending trial, while Kevin was released days after his sentencing.
“In this case, I think that clearly it’s a message from China that if you don’t do anything, this guy will spend 11 years in jail,” Saint-Jacques said.
“But if, for instance, a plea bargain could be negotiated with Mrs. Meng, or if the U.S. were to drop the accusations against her and instead go only after Huawei, then I think we would have the element.
“But there’s still a lot of things that need to happen for that, and I don’t see any quick resolution, unfortunately.”
No word on Kovrig sentencing
The verdict and sentencing mark a new stage in Canada’s deteriorating relationship with China.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the sentence “absolutely unacceptable and unjust.”
“Today’s verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law,” Trudeau said in a media statement early Wednesday.
The United States also condemned the sentencing.
“The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a media statement.
“People should never be used as bargaining chips.”
Spavor was based in China but had extensive links with North Korea in tourism and other commercial ventures that brought him into contact with the isolated communist state’s leadership.
In a statement, Spavor’s family said they disagreed with the charges and that the next step is to “bring Michael home.”
“Michael’s life passion has been to bring different cultures together through tourism and events shared between the Korean peninsula and other countries, including China and Canada,” the statement said. “This situation has not dampened but strengthened his passion.”
Barton, who visited Spavor following the verdict, said Spavor had three messages that he wanted to share with the outside world: “Thank you for all your support,” “I am in good spirits,” and “I want to get home.”
It is not clear when Kovrig, whose trial concluded in March, will receive his sentence.
Meng, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, faces possible extradition to the United States for charges linked to an alleged violation of U.S. sanctions.
Her extradition hearing in Vancouver is currently in its last few weeks in B.C. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected sometime in the next few months.
Spavor’s verdict arrived just over 24 hours after a different Chinese court upheld a death sentence for Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted on charges of drug smuggling.
Garneau said the government is reaching out to Chinese officials to fight for clemency, calling Schellenberg’s sentence “arbitrary.”
Earlier — during a news conference in Shenyang, China, where the Schellenberg verdict was announced — Barton suggested the cases are linked to Meng’s trial.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence these are happening right now while events are going on in Vancouver,” he told reporters Tuesday.