Michael Kovrig denies his Chinese detention was due to alleged ‘espionage’

Click to play video: 'Canada’s Michael Spavor blames fellow prisoner for China arrest, report alleges'
Canada’s Michael Spavor blames fellow prisoner for China arrest, report alleges
WATCH: Canada’s Michael Spavor blames fellow prisoner for China arrest, report alleges – Nov 19, 2023

Michael Kovrig, the former Canadian diplomat detained in China, is denying allegations that he conducted covert intelligence work that led to his arrest and the detention of fellow Canadian Michael Spavor.

“I was never involved in espionage activities,” Kovrig told Global News.

“Any insinuation that I was anything but open and honourable in my interactions with Michael Spavor is false.”

The comments were made in response to a recent report in the Globe and Mail newspaper, citing unnamed sources, which claimed Spavor blames the Canadian government and Kovrig for his detention. According to the report, Spavor is seeking a multi-million-dollar settlement from Ottawa, alleging he was detained because he unwittingly provided intelligence on North Korea to Kovrig.

Kovrig told Global News that when he first saw the report, he was shocked and confused.

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“I thought it was either Chinese disinformation or the results of something like a game of ‘broken telephone,'” he said.

The ‘Two Michaels’ became known internationally following their arrests by Beijing in 2018 on charges of espionage. The Canadian government said that Kovrig and Spavor were political pawns, arbitrarily detained in response to the arrest of Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States.

After nearly three years, Meng’s extradition case was dropped and she was allowed to return to China on Sept. 24, 2021. ‘The Michaels’ were freed hours later.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor share a laugh after landing in Calgary, where they were greeted by the Canadian Prime Minister. Twitter / @JustinTrudeau

Prior to his detention, Kovrig had worked as a diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing from 2014–2016. He then took an unpaid leave to join the International Crisis Group, an independent global think tank.

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“In both of my roles, one area I worked on was trying to engage China in an effort to get the North Koreans to stop developing and proliferating nuclear weapons and missile technology,” Kovrig said.

“So of course we were interested in better understanding the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). That involved talking with people who were knowledgeable about the country, doing analysis and making recommendations.”

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Spavor, Kovrig’s former friend and fellow Canadian ex-pat, had unique access to North Korea. The entrepreneur had moved to China and was working to drum-up investments in the Hermit Kingdom.

In 2013, Spavor made headlines when he helped to facilitate a trip to North Korea for American basketball star Dennis Rodman. That led to Spavor’s unlikely friendship with North Korea’s reclusive dictator, Kim Jong Un.

Instagram photos from 2017 show Canadian Michael Spavor jet-skiing and sharing cocktails with Kim Jong-un. Instagram

Spavor’s social accounts showed images of he and Kim sharing cocktails aboard one of Kim’s private boats. It is alleged that Spavor later recounted his experiences to Kovrig over drinks.

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Spavor’s lawyers claim that unbeknownst to him, Kovrig then shared that intelligence with officials in Ottawa and in Beijing, which ultimately led to Spavor’s arrest.

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Biden shouts out Two Michaels in speech to Canadian Parliament: ‘Our citizens are not bargaining chips’

Kovrig denied ever conducting any covert intelligence gathering. Regarding his discussions with Spavor, Kovrig told Global News: “He knew he was talking to a diplomat.”

“As a diplomat, I wrote diplomatic reports for Global Affairs Canada. As a Crisis Group adviser, I write for the public and my work is published on ICG’s website and in the media,” he said.

“In both roles, I was and always am forthright and open about my identity, my employer and the substance of my work.”

Guy Saint Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China from 2012 -2016, defended Kovrig’s position and denied allegations that he was a spy.

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“Kovrig was a good political officer. And there is an important distinction with spying work and political reporting work,” Saint Jacques told Global News. “Diplomats that are assigned to political sections abroad are charged with doing political reporting. Of course, in a country like China, it’s very difficult to have access to good information because it’s so opaque.

“Michael, being able to travel around, anyone at the embassy would have been interested to hear what he had learned during his trips. And Michael Kovrig was very open about this. This was not done in secret.”

Saint Jacques believes Spavor’s arrest was more likely due to his work in North Korea, which was well known.

“I think that the Mr. Spavor was watched by the Chinese security people. And the reason for this is that China considers North Korea as its backyard,” he said.

“And here is a foreigner, a Canadian, who has very close access to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, something that no Chinese has. And for that reason, there was a bit of jealousy or concern of how influential Mr. Spavor could be. And from my perspective, I think this is the main reason why he was arrested by the Chinese.”

Beijing capitalized on the allegations in the Globe and Mail report, defending its prosecution of Kovrig and Spavor.

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Click to play video: 'Canada and China’s relationship status after Meng, 2 Michaels return home: it’s complicated'
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In a statement, China’s embassy in Ottawa said the two Canadians were “suspected of committing crimes endangering China’s national security.”

“Recent relevant reports once again prove that the above facts cannot be denied,” the embassy said.

Kovrig told Global News that he’s “deeply saddened to see a few fragmentary comments from anonymous sources get turned into a false media narrative.”

He said being forced to respond to false claims felt all too reminiscent of his time in captivity.

“As a detainee, you have to defend your own identity, your sense of truth and reality, against relentless efforts to force you to accept a fake reality,” he said.

“This (recent report) brought it back into the present and reopened old wounds. It felt like once again being subjected to a false narrative while everyone is watching.”

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A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada echoed that sentiment: “Perpetuating the notion that either Michael was involved in espionage is only perpetuating a false narrative under which they were detained by China.”

Spavor and his lawyers declined to comment on the allegations.

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