Michael Kovrig, Canadian Accused of Spying, Is Tried in China

Michael Kovrig, Canadian Accused of Spying, Is Tried in China

Michael Kovrig, Canadian Accused of Spying, Is Tried in China

Michael Kovrig, Canadian Accused of Spying, Is Tried in China

A Chinese court on Monday tried a former Canadian diplomat on accusations of spying, the second such trial in recent days and one that will most likely intensify tensions among China, Canada and the United States.

A court in Beijing held the trial of the former diplomat, Michael Kovrig, who was detained by the Chinese authorities in late 2018, shortly after Canada arrested a top executive at the Chinese technology firm Huawei at the request of the United States.

The proceedings were conducted in secret, with the Chinese authorities barring foreign diplomats and journalists from attending. In a show of support for Mr. Kovrig, more than two dozen diplomats representing several countries, including Canada and the United States, tried to gain access to the courtroom, only to be turned away by security personnel.

Government officials, legal scholars and human rights activists denounced China’s decision to hold the trial, just days after another Canadian, Michael Spavor, a businessman who was also detained in 2018, appeared before a court in Dandong, a northeastern city. Critics have described the trials as a sham and say China is resorting to “hostage diplomacy.”

“We are deeply troubled by the total lack of transparency surrounding these hearings and we continue to work towards an immediate end to their arbitrary detention,” the Canadian foreign minister, Marc Garneau, said in a statement.

The detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor appears to be part of an effort by China to win the release of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei and the daughter of the company’s founder. Ms. Meng faces sweeping fraud charges in the United States, which is seeking her extradition.

China on Monday defended its decision to go forward with the trial of Mr. Kovrig. The court in Beijing said in a brief statement that he was tried on charges of “gathering state secrets and intelligence for foreign countries” and that a verdict would be announced at a later date.

In combative remarks, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, rejected criticism that the trials should be open to the public and accused Canada of acting as an accomplice to American efforts to undermine China.

“This is a political incident through and through,” Ms. Hua said at a news conference in Beijing, referring to Ms. Meng’s case.

The prosecutions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have unfolded against a backdrop of growing tensions over China’s increasingly assertive behavior on the global stage.

American officials on Monday denounced China’s decision to go forward with the trials, saying they were inconsistent with international human rights agreements.

“The charges are a blatant attempt to use human beings as bargaining leverage,” a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Beijing said in a statement. “The practice of arbitrary detention to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable.”

The Biden administration is working to build coalitions of countries to counter China’s strength and limit its transgressions, including on human rights issues.

But China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, appears increasingly unbothered by the threat of international condemnation, and his government seems eager to demonstrate it will not bow to demands from the United States.

At a meeting last week in Alaska, American officials raised the detentions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor with their Chinese counterparts, according to a senior Biden administration official. The Americans also expressed concerns about the exclusion of foreign diplomats from the trials. The talks identified areas of sharp disagreements as well as what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken described as intersecting interests, although ultimately the two sides left without a joint statement of their willingness to work together.

“Beijing has shown time and time again that it frankly does not care what the international community disapproves of,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “It is playing by its own rules, like it or not.”

While verdicts have not yet been announced in the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, both men are likely to be convicted. Chinese courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party, and convictions are almost certain, especially in cases involving national security. During court proceedings, there are limited opportunities to examine evidence or hear rebuttals.

Chinese courts typically shroud such cases in secrecy so that the authorities can maximize control over the outcomes, said Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International’s China team.

“Whatever the results for Kovrig and Spavor,” Mr. Rosenzweig said, “China will want to keep everything under wraps to ensure that it has as much control over the narrative as possible.”

In Canada, the trials have reinforced an already simmering backlash against China, and is pushing the country to re-evaluate its relations with Beijing.

“China’s recent moves — hostage-taking of Canadians, threatening allies such as Australia, hacking away at Hong Kong autonomy, questioning the delicate balance in Taiwan and scaring the neighbors with muscle-flexing — are driving Canada to seek a closer alignment with the U.S.,” The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, said in an editorial, urging Canada to roll back its economic dependence on China.

Mr. Kovrig has detailed the difficult conditions he faces in prison to family during the few times he has been allowed to speak with them. He has said that he has been confined to a small jail cell in Beijing and subjected to repeated interrogations. His diet has, at times, been restricted to rice and boiled vegetables.

His friends and former co-workers on Monday reiterated calls for his release, saying China, Canada and the United States should redouble efforts to resolve the issue.

“This is a political case, not a legal one,” said Richard Atwood, interim president of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization where Mr. Kovrig worked as an adviser. “Anyone with the power to end this unjust, arbitrary detention should do whatever is possible to do so.”

Mr. Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, said in an interview that she hoped international support for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor would help bring about their release.

“Michael shouldn’t have been there to begin with,” she said. “This has been an unjust and arbitrary detention since day one and Monday’s trial didn’t change that fact.”

Dan Bilefsky and Lara Jakes contributed reporting. Elsie Chen contributed research.

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