Chinese officials say they “do not have information to provide” when asked about Michael Kovrig, the Canadian ex-diplomat who was detained earlier this week, but a state-run news website claims he’s being investigated on grounds of state security.
Kovrig works as an adviser for International Crisis Group, which reports on global conflict and works to build a more peaceful world.
The ICG said he was taken into custody Monday night by the Beijing Bureau of Chinese State Security.
Media in China suggested Kovrig was suspected of endangering China’s national security.
One report from the state-run Beijing News said the “relevant” government departments told them Kovrig was “legally censored” and said the case was under review.
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On Wednesday, officials from the Chinese Foreign Ministry suggested the International Crisis Group was working in the country illegally, saying it was not registered.
In China, foreign non-government organizations must be registered with the government.
“Once its staff become engaged in activities in China, it has already violated the law,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a daily news briefing when asked about the case.
“I do not have information to provide you here,” Lu said about Kovrig specifically, declining to say whether Kovrig was charged with a crime.
“If there is such a thing, please do not worry, it is assured that China’s relevant departments will definitely handle it according to law.”
If the law on NGOs is used to charge Kovrig, it would be the first time the Chinese government would do so.
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But experts say Kovrig’s detention is likely to do with the fact that Canadian officials arrested Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou, who faces possible extradition to the U.S. to face charges regarding violated sanctions against Iran.
In an interview Tuesday, Brock University professor Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who has served two postings in China, said he believes Kovrig was arrested to send Canada a warning in the Meng case.
“I can’t help but determine (Kovrig’s arrest) in that way, because of the timing, and it seems to respond to Chinese government statements of serious consequences,” Burton said. “My heart goes out to Mr. Kovrig in this time. I believe that he will be tortured in interrogation.”
Burton said Meng is not simply CFO for Huawei, but a senior member of China’s communist party, along with her father.
“She is someone that is very well connected to the Chinese senior elite,” Burton said.
Burton said he believes China’s government is exerting extreme pressure on Canada, because it fears that if Meng is extradited to face prosecution in the United States, she may be plea bargain for leniency, and in exchange provide evidence revealing Huawei’s connections to China’s government and People’s Liberation Army, and in general, the geopolitical goals of large state-connected Chinese corporations.
Burton said that he believes China will prosecute Kovrig as a spy, without stating specific allegations, and that Kovrig will not have access to legal representation or consular assistance. He said that Kovrig likely was targeted because he has “strong friendships” with the Canadian officials that China is pressing in the Meng case.
“So it seems they wanted to inflict maximum emotion toll on the diplomats that are in direct contact with the Chinese government.”
Meng was released on bail Tuesday night following a three-day hearing. A B.C. Supreme Court judge ordered that she be released on $10 million bail, with $7 million coming in cash and $3 million in sureties.
U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested he would step in on Meng’s case if it would help secure a trade deal with China. The U.S. and China have been butting heads over trade issues for months; Meng’s arrest in Vancouver came on the same day Trump met Chinese President Xi JinPing and the pair promised to continue working to eliminate trade barriers.
Canadian officials said Tuesday they were working with the Chinese government about Kovrig’s case.
“We are in direct contact with Chinese diplomats and representatives,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on his way into Question Period. “We are engaged on the file, which we take very seriously. We are providing consular assistance to the family.”
— with files from the Associated Press