Michael Kovrig goes on trial in China as wife calls for release

Diplomats refused access to espionage trial of Canadian who has been held in detention for 833 days.

Police officers stand outside Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court where Michael Kovrig, a Canadian detained by China in December 2018, went on trial on Monday [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

The wife of Michael Kovrig, one of two Canadians detained in China for more than two years and now accused of spying, has renewed calls for the pair’s immediate release as Kovrig’s trial got underway behind closed doors in a Chinese court.

In an interview with CBC News on Sunday, Vina Nadjibulla urged Canada, the United States and China to come to a diplomatic solution that would lead to the release of Kovrig, a former diplomat, and businessman Michael Spavor.

“Those with the power to end this unjust, arbitrary detention I believe must do whatever is possible to do so,” Nadjibulla said.

“What really will make a difference for Michael and for Michael Spavor now are actions, and concerted diplomatic effort on the part of all three governments to find a path forward. This has lasted too long. It’s serving no one.”

Officials in Ottawa and Washington view the case against the pair as retaliation for Canada’s 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition warrant from the US, where she is wanted on fraud charges.

Vina Nadjibulla with her with husband Canadian Michael Kovrig, who has been detained in China for more than two years and is now being tried on charges of spying [Family Photo via AFP]

The situation has led to a sharp deterioration in relations between Canada and China, which has rejected accusations that it detained Spavor and Kovrig in response to Meng’s arrest.

Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer, has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting the US extradition request in a Canadian court. She is out on bail and living in one of her Vancouver mansions.

Jim Nickel, charge d’affaires at the Canadian embassy in China, was denied access to the Beijing court where Kovrig was due to appear on Monday on grounds of “national security”.

“He’s been arbitrarily detained and now we see the court process itself is not transparent,” Nickel told reporters outside the court, confirming the trial was underway at about 9.20am (01:20 GMT).

Jim Nickel (left), charge d’affaires of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, and William “Bill” Klein, acting deputy chief of mission of the US Embassy in Beijing outside Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court where Michael Kovrig, a Canadian detained by China in December 2018 is on trial on spying charges [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

William Klein, charge de affaires at the US embassy in China, who was also outside the court, said the US was “deeply alarmed” at the trials of the two Canadians.

The two men have been held virtually incommunicado and unable to see lawyers or family since they were detained in December 2018. Even consular visits were suspended for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from China, notes it took 13 months for China to formally arrest the men and five months more to charge them.

Canada has also raised doubts about the two men’s access to legal representation.

“That’s particularly concerning because here in China the courts are run by the Communist Party and in criminal cases 99 percent of (defendants) are found guilty,” Yu said.

‘Not bartering chips’

Spavor and his lawyer appeared at a brief two-hour hearing on Friday and the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court will set a date later to announce its verdict, it said. Diplomats were also barred from those proceedings.

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.”

The International Crisis Group, where Kovrig was a senior adviser for Asia at the time he was detained, also urged Chinese authorities to release him.

Louis Huang holds a placard ccalling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside a court hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at t
Protesters in Vancouver, Canada, demand the release of Michael Spavor, left, and Michael Kovrig, in March 2019 [File: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters]

“Michael didn’t deserve to be detained and his trial is just another arbitrary political action masked as legal process,” ICG Interim Vice President Comfort Ero said in a statement. “Everything he did in China was in the open and well known to Chinese authorities. It is long past time for China to do the right thing and release Michael”.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made the release of Kovrig and Spavor a priority of his government, enlisting the help of US President Joe Biden, whose administration has promised to take a “tough approach” to China.

“Human beings are not bartering chips … We’re going to work together until we get their safe return,” Biden said on February 23 after meeting with Trudeau.

The Biden administration’s relationship with Beijing was off to a rocky start last week, as American and Chinese officials met for their first high-level, in-person talks since Biden took office. The two sides traded barbs and rebukes during the two-day meeting in Alaska.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies