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Canadian businessman is sentenced to 11 years in ‘secret’ Chinese jail for ‘spying’

A court in China has reportedly sentenced a Canadian businessman being held in ‘secret jail’ for alleged spying to 11 years in prison.

Michael Spavor, and his fellow compatriot Michael Kovrig, were arrested in 2018 by officials in China and charged with spying just weeks after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver to face fraud charges in United States.

His sentencing comes as lawyers in Canada representing Meng make a final push to convince a court there not to extradite her to the United States – amid escalating diplomatic conflict between the three nations.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously said Spavor and Kovrig were arrested on ‘trumped-up charges’ to ‘pressure’ Meng’s release. He has also said Canada was fulfilling extradition treaty obligations with the U.S. by detaining her. 

Spavor ‘was convicted of espionage and illegally providing state secrets,’ the Intermediate People’s Court in the city of Dandong said. 

China also confiscated 50,000 yuan of Spavor’s personal assets – about $7,713 – and said he’ll be deported after completing his sentence.

Entrepreneur Michael Spavor, director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, is pictured before his arrest on allegations of espionage in 2017. He has since been sentenced to 11 years in a Chinese prison

Fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, has also been charged with espionage

Fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, has also been charged with espionage

Canadian officials claim that the arrests were in retaliation for Canadian officials detaining Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, right, on United States fraud charges

Canadian officials claim that the arrests were in retaliation for Canadian officials detaining Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, right, on United States fraud charges

Prosecutors showed evidence in court including photos Spavor allegedly took ‘from airports where one should not take photos and also some photos from some military bases,’ according to Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton.

Barton was at the detention center in northeastern China where the sentencing verdict was delivered on Wednesday, which The New York Times described as a ‘secret jail.’

‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this decision after a legal process that lacked both fairness and transparency,’ Barton said.

He said that Canadian officials have maintained that Sapvor and Kovrig are being detained ‘arbitrarily’ and that the country was ‘disappointed’ with the sentencing. 

Barton delivered a video address to diplomats and journalists gathered at the Canadian embassy in Beijing where he called on China to release Spavor and Kovrig, who is still awaiting a verdict in his espionage case.

The ambassador visited with Spavor after the verdict, and delivered a message to the outside world from the prisoner, who like Kovrig has had almost no contact with the outside world since his detention.

Through Barton, Spavor said: ‘Thank you for all your support. I am in good spirits. I want to get home.’

Barton linked the Spavor verdict, and the upholding on Tuesday of the death sentence against another national, to Meng’s ongoing hearings in Vancouver.

‘I don’t take it as a coincidence that we have heard the verdicts of these two cases while that trial is going on,’ Barton said. ‘I don’t want to talk in detail on that.’

Canadian ambassador Dominic Barton, center, has condemned the Spavor verdict

Canadian ambassador Dominic Barton, center, has condemned the Spavor verdict

Jim Nickel, the Canadian embassy's deputy chief of mission in Beijing, speaks to diplomats as they gather at the Canadian embassy after the verdict of Michael Spavor on Wednesday

Jim Nickel, the Canadian embassy’s deputy chief of mission in Beijing, speaks to diplomats as they gather at the Canadian embassy after the verdict of Michael Spavor on Wednesday

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously said Spavor and Kovrig were arrested on 'trumped-up charges' to 'pressure' Meng's release

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously said Spavor and Kovrig were arrested on ‘trumped-up charges’ to ‘pressure’ Meng’s release 

Louis Huang of Vancouver Freedom and Democracy for China holds photos advocating for the release of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been detained in China

Louis Huang of Vancouver Freedom and Democracy for China holds photos advocating for the release of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been detained in China 

Jim Nickel, the deputy head of mission at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, said the ‘consistent communications’ from the Chinese government linking Spavor and Kovrig to Meng makes clear they were ‘arbitrarily detained’ as ‘political leverage.’

Spavor was based in China but had extensive links with North Korea in tourism and other commercial ventures that brought him into contact with the isolated communist state’s leadership.

He organized cultural visits to Pyongyang, where he met Kim Jong Un and helped curdle the unlikely friendship between the North Korean leader and former NBA star Dennis Rodman. 

Nickel said the Canadian government had complained to China that Spavor’s trial in March ‘failed to meet basic standards’ of fairness and defendants’ rights.

The United States embassy in Beijing also said in a statement that it condemns the sentencing of Spavor and that he and Kovrig should be released immediately. 

Proceedings against the Canadians are an attempt to ‘use human beings as bargaining leverage,’ the U.S. Embassy said the statement. 

In February, U.S. President Joe Biden said: ‘Human beings are not bartering chips. We’re going to work together until we get their safe return.’ 

Spavor, right, is a prominent consultant on North Korean business issues and is pictured with North Korea's  Kim Jong Un

Spavor, right, is a prominent consultant on North Korean business issues and is pictured with North Korea’s  Kim Jong Un

Spavor, right, is believed to be one of the few Westerners to have met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and was instrumental in organizing a 2015 trip to North Korea by former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman, left

Spavor, right, is believed to be one of the few Westerners to have met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and was instrumental in organizing a 2015 trip to North Korea by former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman, left

Spavor 'was convicted of espionage and illegally providing state secrets,' the Intermediate People's Court in the city of Dandong said

Spavor ‘was convicted of espionage and illegally providing state secrets,’ the Intermediate People’s Court in the city of Dandong said

China also confiscated 50,000 yuan of Spavor's personal assets - about $7,713 - and said he'll be deported after completing his sentence

China also confiscated 50,000 yuan of Spavor’s personal assets – about $7,713 – and said he’ll be deported after completing his sentence

Spavor can technically appeal the sentence, but China’s judicial system convicts most people who stand trial and the outcome of cases are rarely overturned.

His family said in March the charges against him are vague and have not been made public, and that he has had ‘very limited access and interaction with his retained Chinese defense counsel.’

China detained Spavor in December 2018, days after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport on a warrant from the United States.

He was charged with espionage in June 2019. The Dandong court concluded a one-day trial in March and waited till Wednesday to announce the verdict.

Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou returns to a court hearing following a lunch break in Vancouver on Tuesday

Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou returns to a court hearing following a lunch break in Vancouver on Tuesday

Meng, 49, has said she is innocent and has been fighting her extradition from under house arrest in Vancouver

Meng, 49, has said she is innocent and has been fighting her extradition from under house arrest in Vancouver

Her lawyers also argue the case is politically motivated and that what she is accused of isn't a crime in Canada

Her lawyers also argue the case is politically motivated and that what she is accused of isn’t a crime in Canada

Kovrig, a former diplomat, was also detained in China in late 2018 days after Meng’s arrest and charged with espionage. His trial concluded in March with the verdict to be announced at an unspecified date.

Since Meng’s detention, China has sentenced four Canadians to death over drug charges. They are Robert Schellenberg, Fan Wei, Ye Jianhui and Xu Weihong.

China has rejected the suggestion that the cases of the Canadians in China are linked to Meng’s case in Canada though Beijing has warned of unspecified consequences unless Meng was released.

Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested December 1, 2018, in Vancouver on U.S. charges.

She was accused of lying to the Hong Kong arm of the British bank HSBC about possible dealings with Iran, potentially causing the bank to violate American economic sanctions against Tehran. 

Her extradition hearings in Canada are currently in their last few weeks ahead of a ruling from the judge, expected sometime in the next few months, before Canada´s justice minister makes a final decision on whether to extradite her.

Meng, 49, has said she is innocent and has been fighting her extradition from under house arrest in Vancouver, where she has to wear an ankle monitor after posting a bail of $10 million Canadian dollars – about $7,981,500 in the U.S.

Her lawyers also argue the case is politically motivated and that what she is accused of isn’t a crime in Canada. They have also denied the allegations and say the U.S. case is flawed.

Her hearings are due to end on August 20 but no decision on her extradition is expected for several months.

Observers say the likely verdicts and sentences for both Canadians will track Meng’s trial as China seeks leverage over Canada.

The Huawei case is one of a series of conflicts between Beijing and other governments over China’s technology ambitions, human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet and territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas.

China has tried to pressure Trudeau’s government by imposing restrictions on imports of canola seed oil and other products from Canada.

Meanwhile, Beijing is blocking imports of Australian wheat, wine and other products after its government called for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The disease that has killed more than 4.3 million people was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, although China has suggested it may have originated overseas, a theory that has not been embraced by medical experts.


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