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Canadians Alarmed by Trial of Businessman Accused of Spying in China

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MONTREAL — Canadians on Friday reacted with anger and dismay following the trial in China of a Canadian businessman on espionage charges that many dismissed as a sham and a flagrant display of hostage diplomacy.

The businessman, Michael Spavor, was tried on Friday in proceedings closed to Canadian diplomats and journalists, in a court in Dandong, a northeastern Chinese city. The court said in a terse statement that the verdict would be announced at a later date.

Another Canadian, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat and Toronto native who was also detained and accused of espionage, is expected to stand trial in Beijing on Monday.

The legal proceedings against the two Canadians have underlined the relative impotence of a middle power like Canada when faced with a political and economic behemoth like China.

The two men have been in detention for more than two years, seemingly as retribution for Canada’s decision to arrest Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese technology giant Huawei, at the request of the United States. Ms. Meng is the daughter of the company’s founder and chief executive, Ren Zhengfei, one of China’s most prominent businessmen.

Ms. Meng’s arrest on Dec. 1, 2018, while changing flights in Vancouver, thrust Canada into the middle of a skirmish between two superpowers. Chinese authorities arrested the two Canadians days later.

Experts on Chinese politics say the fate of the two prisoners in China’s notoriously opaque justice system would be inextricably linked to the Biden administration’s diplomacy toward China and the outcome of the Meng case.

In Canada, officials and political analysts expressed alarm about the secrecy of the proceedings, in which Canadian officials said the evidence used to charge the men had not been disclosed.

“The trial was a complete sham,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. “It was clear that this was all preordained and they just went through the motions. It is a masquerade of justice and will only serve to reinforce mistrust of China in Canada and intensify pressure on the Canadian government to adopt a more stringent approach with Beijing.”

In a sign that was already happening, Erin O’Toole, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, on Thursday accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government of “doing nothing” and having no plan to help the men. Mr. O’Toole, who has called for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to be moved to another country, wrote on Twitter, “We must work with allies and stand up to these bullies.”

Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Friday that the “arbitrary detention” of the Canadians was “completely unacceptable” and criticized the court proceedings’ lack of transparency.

Earlier this month, he accused Beijing of fabricating the charges against the Canadians. “It is obvious that the two Michaels were arrested on trumped-up national security charges days after we fulfilled our extradition treaty responsibilities toward our ally, the United States,” he said.

A group of 10 diplomats representing eight countries, including Canada and the United States, sought access to the trial in Dandong, a seaside city near China’s border with North Korea, but were turned away. The court said the trial, which lasted only about two hours, had been held in private because it involved state secrets.

The two men, held in separate prisons in northern China, have been largely cut off from the world and at times forced to go months without visits from diplomats. They have had limited access to defense lawyers. During at least parts of his confinement, Mr. Kovrig has been unable to go outside, has been interrogated and has at various times forced to live on rice with boiled vegetables.

Vina Nadjibulla, Mr. Kovrig’s wife, said on Friday that it was urgent for Canada and the United States to intervene to free the two men. She said Mr. Kovrig had not had a consular visit since January and was sustaining himself by reading novels and books about human resilience, while doing yoga and walking steps in his claustrophobic cell.

“It has been clear from day one that this case won’t be settled by legal proceedings but by political intervention and diplomacy,” she added.

American officials said on Friday that they were “deeply alarmed” by China’s decision to go forward with the trials of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release,” a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Beijing said in a statement.

Former President Donald J. Trump took a loudly antagonistic approach to China, accusing it of unfair trade practices, blaming it for the coronavirus pandemic, imposing heavy tariffs on Chinese exports and barring Chinese technology companies from American markets. Canadian diplomats hope that the Biden administration’s less strident tone might yield better results.

The issue of the Canadian prisoners was expected to come up as top Biden administration officials met their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage starting on Thursday.

China, accusing Western countries of trying to thwart its rise as a technology superpower, has been pressing the United States to drop a sweeping fraud case against Ms. Meng.

Canada’s poor relations with China have also been exacerbated by Canada’s increasingly tough stance on Chinese human rights. In February, Canada’s House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to call China’s treatment of its minority Uyghur population a genocide, angering Beijing. Ottawa has also condemned China’s clampdown in Hong Kong.

“There is a backlash against China in Canada, and the trial will only harden attitudes,” said Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the University of Alberta China Institute.

According to a recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute, a leading polling company, only 14 percent of Canadians have a favorable view of China, while a majority view China freeing “the two Michaels” as a prerequisite to resetting relations.

Many Canadians have been dismayed by the contrast between Ms. Meng’s gilded lifestyle in a seven-bedroom mansion in Vancouver and the harsh conditions of the two Canadians. Ms. Meng, who is out on bail of 10 million Canadian dollars and wears a GPS tracker on her left ankle, has a high-powered legal team. She can move fairly easily around Vancouver and has dined with her family at a Vancouver restaurant and received private art lessons and massages at her mansion.

On social media on Friday, some Canadians expressed anger at the latitude given to Ms. Meng. Others, however, have applauded her treatment as an example of Canada’s respect for the rule of law.

A self-described consultant, Mr. Spavor ran an organization in Dandong that promoted cultural trips to North Korea. He established high-level contacts there and once met North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. In 2013, Mr. Spavor helped arrange a visit to North Korea by Dennis Rodman, the former N.B.A. star.

Mr. Kovrig was detained while on leave from Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and had been working as a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. He no longer enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

Mr. Kovrig was working on a report on China’s relations with North Korea for the International Crisis Group at the time of his detention. The organization has repeatedly stressed he had nothing to do with the Huawei case.

Claire Fu and Albee Zhang contributed research.


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