EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story by the Associated Press cited Chinese officials saying the two Michaels had been tried and indicted. A Canadian government official later said this was a translation error: the two Michaels have not been tried at this time. This story has been updated to reflect the new information.
A Canadian government official says Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, detained in China for two years, have not been tried despite earlier reports to that effect.
Nothing has changed in the status of their case.
This comes despite earlier reports that trials had taken place in the Chinese judicial system — a comment that was misinterpreted in a translation error, the official said.
“Officials also confirmed that the confusion was caused by an inaccurate characterization of the process made by the Chinese MFA spokesperson,” read a statement from Global Affairs Canada.
“The two men were indicted on June 19, but have yet not gone to trial.”
At a daily briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was erroneously quoted as saying the two had been “arrested, indicted and tried,” in what would have been the first public mention that they had been brought to court.
Canadian officials explained that while the term “trial” has a very specific meaning in English, the term in Mandarin means “the whole process.” This discrepancy is what resulted in the mistranslation, they said.
Hua was also quoted as saying that Spavor and Kovrig’s cases and were “different in nature,” with from that of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The spokesperson described Meng’s December 2018 arrest in Vancouver as being a “purely political incident.”
Despite that, China has consistently linked the fate of the two Canadians to its demands that Meng be released immediately.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole spoke out about the issue during a Thursday press conference, calling on Canada to take a tougher stance on China.
“A weak and timid approach has failed. It is time to work with our allies and show that we’re going to have a more serious approach with respect to Beijing,” O’Toole said.
Kovrig and Spavor are marking two years in separate Chinese prisons, on what Canada and dozens of its Western allies say are trumped-up espionage charges in retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, one of the few outsiders to see them, said this week Kovrig and Spavor are anything but broken men, and that seeing how they’ve endured their captivity was inspiring.
Kovrig is “marshalling every ounce of his willpower and strength” to cope with his difficult situation, his wife Vina Nadjibulla told The Canadian Press in an interview this week.
“He says that knowing that Canadians care, knowing that the world cares, and people are fighting for his release, makes him feel stronger, and keeps hope alive,” she said, drawing on letters that he has written in captivity.
“He hopes that he will be able to come out from this experience not only having survived it, but with a commitment, with resolve to rebuild his life better, to contribute even more to society.”
The Canadian Press also reached out, through intermediaries, to request interviews with Spavor’s friends and family but was unsuccessful. Spavor worked as an entrepreneur in the Chinese city of Dandong, where he is imprisoned near the North Korean border.
Kovrig was most recently an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington and before that he was a member of Canada’s diplomatic corps, a career focused on preventing deadly conflicts.
“He hopes that he can continue to do that, and he can rejoin the broader conversation in the world with life and not just continue to be isolated and cut off in the way that he is,” said Nadjibulla.
She said Kovrig is devouring books from the meditations of stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” to Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” He’s reread one of his pre-prison favourites, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, because it contains a key message for him.
“It essentially posits that it’s important to cultivate an ability to not only survive traumas or disruptions but to become better and stronger as a result. So, this idea of building back better. I know it’s very much on the minds of many of us as we recover from the pandemic,” she said.
Kovrig is also drawing on stoic philosophical teaching that, among other things, calls for the transformation of “fear into prudence, pain into information,” said Nadjibulla. Kovrig has added “anger into the termination of grievance” to that philosophy.
He has been drawn to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the sixth book of the New Testament, “which says suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope. And Michael is doing everything possible to keep hope alive,” said Nadjibulla.
Kovrig is subjecting himself to a strict physical regimen, forever on the move in his small cell striving to walk the equivalent of five kilometres daily because he knows his mind cannot thrive if his body is not strong, said Nadjibulla.
Robert Malley, Kovrig’s boss at the International Crisis Group, says his imprisoned colleague can hold the plank, a core body exercise of endurance, for 18 minutes. In solidarity, Crisis Group colleagues recently had a plank competition but the closest anyone got was seven minutes. They’re also walking 7,000 steps a day, the equivalent of five kilometres.
Malley said he and his colleagues are in awe of Kovrig’s discipline.
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“None of us can be prepared for that, unless you’re in the military and you’re told this could happen. But he seems to have had all of the reflexes, instincts that are necessary,” said Malley.
When Kovrig is released one day his colleagues hope stories of their attempts to replicate some of his exercises will help him heal and, perhaps, bridge the gap growing between them and him, said Malley.
Kovrig only found out the scope of the global pandemic during Barton’s on-site virtual visit in October — his first contact with Canadian diplomats since January because Chinese authorities wouldn’t allow any contact due to COVID-19, said Nadjibulla.
He was shocked at the pandemic’s scale and compared it to a zombie apocalypse and the movie “Contagion.”
Kovrig is also aware that he is one of “two Michaels” and understands that both he and Spavor “are caught in this bigger situation,” she said. It’s not a topic that can be discussed during the now-resumed 30-minute consular visits.
Nadjibulla said she was happy to hear that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to U.S. president-elect Joe Biden about the two Michaels in their recent conversation. Trudeau refused to discuss the content of that conversation last week, or whether Biden might revisit the Justice Department’s attempted extradition and prosecution of Meng.
If the U.S. withdrew its charges, Meng could go free, and that might give China reason to free the two Michaels.
“Our Michael and Michael Spavor are caught in a bigger geopolitical struggle,” Nadjibulla said. “They’re pawns in a bigger political game involving the U.S., China and Canada. And they have been in the situation for two long years, for no other reason than being Canadian citizens.”
With files from The Canadian Press