Espionage trial concludes for second Canadian detained in China

Closed-door trial of Michael Kovrig finishes with a Beijing court saying it will set a date for the verdict.

William Klein, acting deputy chief of mission of the US embassy, and Jim Nickel, chargé d'affaires of the Canadian embassy, stand outside the Beijing court on Monday [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

The trial of Michael Kovrig, a Canadian detained for more than two years in China and later charged with espionage, wrapped up on Monday evening with a Beijing court saying it would set a date for the verdict.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau condemned the lack of transparency after Canadian and American diplomats were barred from the court.

Kovrig, a former diplomat who was working with Crisis Group when he was detained in 2018, was formally charged last June with spying at the same time as his compatriot, businessman Michael Spavor.

Canadian diplomats were also prevented from attending Spavor’s trial in the northern city of Dandong on Friday, which lasted only two hours and also ended without a verdict being announced.

“The thoughts of all Canadians are with Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and their families during these difficult times. As minister of foreign affairs, securing their safe return to Canada is my top priority,” Garneau said in a statement. “The eyes of the world are on these cases.”

Kovrig and his lawyer were present in the court on Monday, a court statement said, for the case of “spying on state secrets and intelligence for foreign powers”.

The Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court said the process had concluded and it would “choose a date to announce the verdict in accordance with the law”.

Analysts say the detention of the Canadians is in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest on a US extradition warrant of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

On Monday, police cordoned off an area outside the Beijing court as Canadian diplomats were denied entry and turned away.

eople hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Spavor and Kovrig
People hold signs calling on China to release Spavor and Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at a court in Vancouver, Canada [File: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters]

Jim Nickel, chargé d’affaires of the Canadian embassy in Beijing, told reporters he was “very troubled by the lack of access and lack of transparency in the legal process”.

Representatives of 26 countries had gathered outside the building on Monday, Nickel said, and were “lending their voice” to calls for Kovrig’s immediate release.

A court official told reporters no entry was allowed because the trial is a national security case.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the detention of the two men “completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings”.

During a news conference on Monday, Trudeau said there was no link between the cases against Kovrig and Spavor and new sanctions that Ottawa levied against four Chinese officials on Monday over the treatment of the country’s Uighur Muslim minority.

“No, there is no link between the two events,” Trudeau told reporters.

“We will continue to be very, very clear that this arbitrary detention [of Kovrig and Spavor] is unacceptable. We will continue to demand their return.”

China’s foreign ministry on Monday defended diplomats being blocked from entering the court, and criticised those gathering outside as “very unreasonable”.

“Be it a few or dozens of diplomats trying to gather and exert pressure, it is an interference in China’s judicial sovereignty … and not something that a diplomat should do,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

‘A political case’

The court dates for the two Canadians come as an extradition hearing for Meng enters its final months and alongside fiery high-level talks between the US and China in Alaska.

Meng, whose father is Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, has been fighting extradition to the US on charges that she and the company violated US sanctions on Iran and other laws. She has been given bail and is living in one of her Vancouver mansions.

Canada’s former ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, also criticised the proceedings against Kovrig.

“China does not even try to make this look like a real trial as evidence is not shared with the defence and the judge does not even take the time to review it,” he said ahead of the hearing.

“It just confirms that the process is pre-ordained by the Communist Party and this is a political case.”

“The message to the USA is: If you want to help the Canadians, make sure that Meng is returned quickly to China,” said Saint-Jacques.

Jim Nickel (left), Canada’s charge d’affaires, was barred from attending Michael Kovrig’s trial in Beijing [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

China’s judicial system convicts most people who stand trial and the two men face up to life in prison if found guilty of “espionage” and “providing state secrets”.

They have had almost no contact with the outside world since their detention, and virtual consular visits only resumed in October after a nine-month hiatus that authorities said was due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Beijing has insisted the detention of the two Canadians is lawful while calling Meng’s case “a purely political incident”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies