Diplomats from more than two dozen countries were denied access to a Chinese court Monday as detained Canadian Michael Kovrig went on trial in Beijing on espionage charges.
Kovrig is one of two Canadians detained since 2018, following the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is currently fighting extradition to the United States, where she is wanted for allegedly breaching sanctions against Iran. On Friday, Canadian Michael Spavor went on trial in Dandong, in northeastern China. His trial was held behind closed doors and only lasted two hours.
Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who worked for the International Crisis Group (ICG), is accused by the Chinese authorities of “stealing sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017,” while Spavor, a businessman with a focus on North Korea, is accused of providing intelligence to Kovrig.
Spavor’s trial took place as US and Chinese officials were trading barbs at the opening of a diplomatic summit in Alaska, the first time the countries’ top diplomats have met since US President Joe Biden took office.
Both Washington and Ottawa have repeatedly called for Kovrig and Spavor’s release, denouncing their detention as political and arbitrary.
Speaking to reporters outside court Monday, Canada’s charge d’affairs Jim Nickel accused China of breaching international treaty obligations by denying consular officials access to their citizens.
“Michael Kovrig has been detained for two years now, he’s been arbitrarily detained, and now we see the court process itself is not transparent, and we’re very troubled by this,” he said, adding that access had been denied because “this is a so-called national security case.”
Nickel thanked other diplomats for showing solidarity with Canada. He said there were some 28 representatives from 26 different countries outside the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court on Monday, “lending their voice for the immediate release of Michael Kovrig.”
Reuters listed the US, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Netherlands and Czech Republic as among the countries with diplomatic representation outside the court.
Those diplomats and journalists were met by a large police presence. Repeated attempts by the diplomats to enter the building before the trial got underway were rebuffed, according to reporters at the scene.
Following Spavor’s speedy trial Friday, the court in Dandong said in a statement that it would “deliver its verdict at a later date in accordance with the law.”
Family members and contacts of the two Canadian men have described them being held in poor conditions, and denied outside contact. Almost all in-person consular visits to foreign prisoners in China have been paused since last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with diplomats only able to speak to those detained via the phone.
After Kovrig and Spavor were charged with espionage last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced the “political” nature of their case, saying their detention was a “decision made by the Chinese government and we deplore it.”
Chinese courts have a conviction rate of more than 99% and observers say the release of the two men could now rest on a diplomatic solution, potentially after a face-saving conviction and sentence of time served.
Trudeau has repeatedly refused to consider any trade of the two Canadians for Meng, whose detention has seen relations plunge between Ottawa and Beijing. Last month, Canada’s parliament approved a non-binding motion accusing China of committing genocide against its Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang, further straining ties between the two countries.