Michael Spavor, one of two Canadians detained by China more than two years ago, appeared in court on Friday morning to face charges of espionage, in a case seen in Ottawa and Washington as a retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive on an extradition warrant from the United States.
China detained Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, in December 2018, just days after Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer.
Jim Nickel, charge d’affaires of the Canadian Embassy in China, told reporters Spavor was present for the hearing, citing confirmation from his lawyer, but no verdict was announced. Diplomats were not allowed into the hearing.
Beijing insists the detentions are not linked to the arrest of Meng, who remains under house arrest in one of her Vancouver mansions, as she fights extradition to the US.
Spavor and Kovrig have had almost no contact with the outside world since they were detained more than 800 days ago, and extremely limited access to Chinese lawyers. Virtual consular visits resumed only in October after a nine-month hiatus which authorities said was necessary because of the coronavirus.
Kovrig, a former diplomat, is due to go on trial on Monday in Beijing.
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.”
Spavor’s trial took place at the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court, which sits along the Yalu River opposite North Korea, the isolated country that Spavor visited regularly as a businessman.
Just before 9am local time (01:00GMT), court vans with a police car escort arrived at the court, although it was not possible to see if Spavor was inside any of the vehicles.
The trial started around an hour later.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, who is based in Beijing, noted nearly all defendants in China were found guilty.
Officials from the Canadian embassy as well as other nations including United States, Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Germany tried to attend the hearing, but were not allowed to enter.
“We are disappointed in the lack of access and the lack of transparency,” Nickel told reporters before the trial was scheduled to begin.
“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.
Canadian officials last saw Spavor on February 3. Multiple requests to see him ahead of the trial were denied, Nickel said.
The trials are taking place as the US and China hold high-level talks in Alaska, the first since US President Joe Biden took office.
Canadian officials have been denied access to the trials of Michael #Spavor and #Kovrig. Both have also very limited access to Chinese lawyers. There is no judicial independence in China, the Communist Party controls the courts and 99% of criminal cases are found guilty. https://t.co/pJMusS4ZDK
— Katrina Yu (@Katmyu) March 19, 2021
China denied on Thursday that the trials were linked to those talks.
Observers have said convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement which would allow the two men to be released and sent back to Canada.
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.”
Meng – whose father is Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei – has been in a two-year battle against extradition to the US over charges the firm violated US sanctions on Iran.
Her court case in Vancouver has entered its final phase with hearings expected to end in mid-May, barring appeals.