China arrested Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig on espionage charges in December 2018.
Supporters of two Canadian men imprisoned in China marked the pair’s 1,000th day of “unjust” detention on Sunday, as the United States called for their release and Beijing condemned what it called Canada’s “gross interference” in its judicial sovereignty.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested separately in China in December 2018 shortly after Canada arrested a top executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei on a US extradition request.
Both men were held virtually incommunicado and have since been convicted of spying in closed Chinese courts – a process that Canada and dozens of allies say amounts to arbitrary detention.
In Ottawa, hundreds of supporters of the two men staged a march on Sunday, seeking to replicate the 7,000 steps that Kovrig has tried to walk every day in his cramped cell to maintain his physical and mental wellbeing.
“It’s an extremely difficult milestone, but one that we want to mark in this way, in part, to honour the strength and resilience that Michael and Michael Spavor have shown,” said Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla.
Spavor, a businessman, and Kovrig, who works with the International Crisis Group and is a former Canadian diplomat, went on trial in March.
Spavor was handed an 11-year jail sentence on national security charges last month shortly before the extradition hearings for Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive, concluded.
“We worry about him, but we find strength from all the support we get,” said Paul Spavor, his brother.
Kovrig has yet to hear the verdict in his case.
The rally in Ottawa was attended by Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau and several opposition legislators, as well as the US ambassador to Ottawa. Similar events were held elsewhere in Canada and across the world in cities including Brussels, New York, Seoul and Washington, DC.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, issued a statement condemning what he called “arbitrary detentions” by China.
“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada and the international community in calling for the PRC to release, immediately and unconditionally, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig,” Blinken said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable,” he added. “People should never be used as bargaining chips.”
China’s government has released few details in the cases against the two men other than to accuse Spavor of passing along sensitive information to Kovrig. It also denies a direct link between the two men’s detention and Canada’s arrest of Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, but routinely mentions her when referring to Kovrig and Spavor’s cases.
A decision is expected in the coming months on whether to send Meng to the US to face fraud charges related to alleged violations of Iran sanctions by the Chinese tech giant.
The seemingly tit-for-tat arrests have plunged Ottawa-Beijing relations into a deep freeze, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the charges against the two Canadians “trumped-up”.
The Chinese Embassy in Canada on Sunday protested against Ottawa’s labelling of the two men’s imprisonment as arbitrary detention.
“China has repeatedly stated its solemn position on the Spavor and Kovrig cases. The information disclosed by relevant authorities shows the evidence in their cases is solid. China is a country under the rule of law. Anyone who breaks the law in China will be punished by Chinese law,” the embassy said in a statement.
“Canada had concocted the so-called declaration against arbitrary detention in an attempt to rally a gang to put pressure on China through ‘microphone diplomacy’. This is doomed to fail,” it added.