Michael Spavor, Canadian Accused of Spying, Stands Trial in China

Michael Spavor, Canadian Accused of Spying, Stands Trial in China

Michael Spavor, Canadian Accused of Spying, Stands Trial in China

Michael Spavor, Canadian Accused of Spying, Stands Trial in China

A Chinese court on Friday went forward with a trial of a Canadian businessman who has been held in detention for more than two years on charges of spying, in a case that has prompted a global outcry and calls for the United States to intervene.

A court in Dandong, a northeastern Chinese city, held the trial of the Canadian, Michael Spavor, who worked to promote cultural trips to North Korea before he was detained in late 2018, in seeming retaliation for Canada’s decision to arrest a top Chinese technology executive at the request of the United States.

The court said in a terse statement that Mr. Spavor had been tried on charges of spying and “illegally providing state secrets for foreign countries.” It said a verdict would be announced at a later date.

In a sign of China’s efforts to control the proceedings, the authorities barred the public and news media from attending the trial. A group of 10 diplomats representing eight countries, including Canada and the United States, tried to seek 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 about two hours, had been held in private because it involved state secrets.

“We are deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings,” Jim Nickel, a top official at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing who tried to attend the trial, said in a statement.

Another Canadian, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat who was also detained in 2018, is expected to stand trial in Beijing on Monday.

Since they were detained, Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig have been at the center of a heated international dispute among China, Canada and the United States.

China, accusing Western countries of trying to thwart its rise as a technology superpower, is pressing the United States to drop a sweeping fraud case against Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese technology giant Huawei. The United States, which is seeking Ms. Meng’s extradition, has called on China to release Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig.

“The trials of the two Michaels are revenge for Ms. Meng,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a veteran Canadian ambassador to China who was Mr. Kovrig’s boss when he was first secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. “It is a message to Canada and the world: ‘Don’t mess with China.’”

The issue of the Canadians was expected to come up as top Biden administration officials met their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage starting on Thursday. Friends and relatives of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig have called on President Biden and Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to take action to secure their release.

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.

Any compromise with Beijing could be elusive, as China has not shown signs of backing down, instead using its prosecution of the two men to project an image of strength and demand that the United States withdraw its extradition request for Ms. Meng.

“Beijing is making it clear that the two Michaels will be put on trial with Chinese characteristics: closed to the public and to the media,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “Its actions leave little doubt about who the ultimate decider of the Canadians’ fate will be — the Chinese Communist Party, not Biden, not Trudeau.”

The imprisonment of the two men has spurred calls in Canada for tougher action against China. 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. A majority view the Chinese government’s freeing the two Canadians as a prerequisite to resetting relations.

“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. He added that the case of the two Michaels underlined the limited leverage of a middle power like Canada when faced with an economic and political behemoth like China.

Legal experts and human rights activists have denounced China’s treatment of the Canadians, accusing Chinese officials of resorting to “hostage diplomacy.” 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.

“Like so many instances in which Chinese authorities seek to silence a critic or settle a score, these cases have nothing to do with law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

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.

“Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman,” his family said in a statement before the trial on Friday. “He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people. We stand by Michael and maintain his innocence in this difficult situation.”

Claire Fu and Albee Zhang contributed research.

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