The former Canadian ambassador to China says he sympathizes with Michael Kovrig, the former Canadian diplomat detained in China, because the Chinese interrogation process is “very harsh.”
Kovrig was detained on Dec. 10, according to his current employer, International Crisis Group (ICG). The arrest came 10 days after Chinese businessperson Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada to face extradition to the U.S.
The state-run Beijing News said the “relevant” government departments told them Kovrig was “legally censored” and was suspected of endangering China’s national security.
WATCH: Who is former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig?
Guy Saint-Jacques was Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, when Kovrig was working for the embassy.
He said the timing of the arrest isn’t a coincidence and it’s likely the Chinese will charge Kovrig with espionage.
Kovrig was doing legitimate political reporting, including in-depth analysis on Chinese affairs, and travelled around China to speak with many people, including dissidents, Saint-Jacques said.
“This does not constitute as spying, but in the eyes of the Chinese, as soon as you start to look at some of their sensitive files… it’s very easy that they say you are mingling in their affairs,” Saint-Jacques told Global News.
“It’s part of the Chinese tactics to put pressure on the Canadian government. They couldn’t go after a diplomat because diplomats have diplomatic immunity, but this guy is as close as they could get, and clearly, there’s no coincidence there in my view.”
WATCH: Canada’s former ambassador explains why China may have detained Canadian Michael Kovrig
Saint-Jacques was ambassador during a similar case – when a Canadian couple was detained after a different Chinese businessperson was arrested in Canada.
Julia and Kevin Garratt were arrested in 2014; while Julia was released six months later, Kevin was charged with espionage and spent two years in jail in China.
Saint-Jacques said while Kevin Garratt was detained, he faced harsh circumstances – and that Kovrig can expect the same.
“He will be sleep deprived, and they will just try to force him to confess — they try to break people, that’s what happened to Kevin Garratt unfortunately,” the former ambassador said.
“I have a lot of sympathy for Michael because I know what he is going through and I know what he will be going through in the next few months.”
Kovrig hasn’t been charged, but Saint-Jacques said that is normal for Chinese procedures.
It can take up to six months for the “fact-finding, interrogation phase,” he said, noting that the person in question would continue to be detained, and contact between Canadian officials and the detained person could be limited.
Then the detained person would be officially charged and arrested. Once charged, the process that leads to the actual trial would unfold over a period of six to eight months.
“In the Chinese system, once a person is charged, in 99.9 per cent of the cases, you are found guilty, so that’s why the Canadian government has to intervene as early as possible to try to impress on the Chinese that this could cause major damage to the bilateral relationship,” he said.
Joanna Chiu, a Canadian journalist who’s worked in China and is friends with Kovrig, says he is a happy person who likes old-fashioned things like swing music
In an editorial in the Toronto Star, she urges Canadians to pay attention to Kovrig’s case – saying the detention of researchers and human rights activists happens too often in China.
“My first reaction was … maybe he was detained briefly and people are just making a big deal out it,” she told Global News, saying the gravity of the situation didn’t sink in until later.
“It could be very serious, he could be not heard from for a long time, as we’ve seen in previous cases where foreigners get taken in and it becomes to China, some sort of national security issue.”
“There is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety,” Chiu said.
WATCH: No explanation for ex-Canadian diplomat’s arrest in Canada
For their part, Chinese officials wouldn’t comment on Kovrig’s situation, but instead suggested his employer, the International Crisis Group, was working in the country illegally because it wasn’t registered with the government.
Chiu said this regulation only came into effect in 2017, and that it was normal that the ICG hadn’t yet registered.
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.”
WATCH: Trudeau says Canada engaging with Chinese officials on detained Canadian diplomat