The trial for one of two Canadians detained in China took place behind closed doors, lasted just two hours and ended without a verdict, according to multiple local reports Friday.
Canadian officials were barred from attending the trial of Michael Spavor, who was being tried in the Chinese city of Dandong on espionage charges after over two years in detention.
Officials will also be barred from attending the upcoming trial of Michael Kovrig, a second Canadian who has been held for the same charges, Global Affairs Canada confirmed Thursday.
“The official notification received from Chinese authorities indicated that these trials are closed to both the public and the media,” wrote Global Affairs spokesperson Christelle Chartrand in a statement on Thursday.
“Despite several official requests to Chinese authorities, Canadian officials have not yet received permission to attend the trials.”
She added that the government remains “deeply troubled” by the lack of transparency surrounding the proceedings.
The Associated Press reported that sidewalks were roped off with police tape and journalists were kept at a distance as police cars and vans with lights flashing — one of which was believed to be carrying Spavor — entered the court complex Friday.
The Canadian Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission Jim Nickel knocked on a door to the court seeking entry but was refused. He was told the trial would begin at 10 a.m. but was given no word on how long it would last or when a verdict would be announced.
Another 10 diplomats from eight countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, stood on the street opposite the courthouse in a show of support.
The Liaoning Dandong Intermediate People’s Court later said in a statement that it will announce the verdict at a later date. The court also said Spavor and defence lawyers attended the trial, which it said was behind closed doors because the case involves “state secrets.”
International and bilateral treaties required that China provide Canadian diplomats access to the trial, but the court said Chinese law regarding trials on state security charges overrode such obligations, Nickel said.
Kovrig’s trial is believed to be slated for Monday in Beijing.
Spavor and Kovrig were detained in December 2018 in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver. The arrest was at the behest of the United States, which had requested her extradition.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa said the U.S. is “deeply alarmed” by the trials.
“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release and continue to condemn the lack of minimum procedural protections during their two-year arbitrary detention,” U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Katherine Brucker said.
Both Canadians have been accused of espionage, a crime that is punishable in China by life in prison with a minimum sentence of 10 years. Chinese courts boast a 99.7 per cent conviction rate, meaning that once a trial is commenced, the odds are the two being convicted are all but a guarantee.
Kovrig’s employer, the International Crisis Group, said in a statement that it’s “disappointed” in the news of the Canadian’s pending trial.
“From the moment he was detained, the political nature of his case has been clear,” said Richard Atwood, interim president of International Crisis Group, in a statement. Kovrig has been working for ICG since 2017.
“What happens in the Chinese legal system does not change this. After 830 days imprisoned, Michael should be released immediately so he can return home to his loved ones.
Speaking to Global News on Wednesday, Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, called the announcement a “difficult piece of news to process.”
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“It’s overwhelming. I keep thinking about Michael and how he must be experiencing this and preparing and making sense of it, preparing for Monday,” Nadjibulla said.
She said the news “underscores the urgency” of the situation and that Canadian officials “must do everything possible to bring them home.”
“We’re running out of time. The process in China is moving ahead and this is incredibly, incredibly urgent at this stage,” Nadjibulla said.
Spavor’s family, who have kept a low-profile throughout his detention, also spoke up about the looming trial in a statement issued to Global News on Thursday.
“As a family, we have chosen to remain largely out of the media due to Michael’s request for privacy. At this time, we feel it is necessary to speak out and call for his unconditional release,” the family wrote in the statement.
“His continued unjust detention depriving him of his liberty is both unfair and unreasonable, especially given the lack of transparency in the case.”
Spavor’s family described him as an “ordinary Canadian businessman” who had done “extraordinary things” to build ties between Canada, China and North Korea.
“He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people. We stand by Michael and maintain his innocence in this difficult situation,” they wrote.
“We thank the government of Canada for its tireless advocacy for the release of both our Michael and Michael Kovrig, and we are endlessly grateful for the support, thoughts and prayers of our friends and allies around the world.”
The government has been repeatedly calling for the release of the two detained Canadians since their arbitrary arrest in 2018. However, that push has been hindered by the icy relationship between Canada and China, which hit the deep freeze over the last two years.
Beyond the retaliatory detentions of the two Canadians, China also sentenced Canadian Robert Schellenberg to die after a hastily scheduled retrial of his drug smuggling conviction in China — just one month after Meng’s arrest.
The government has repeatedly called for clemency in Schellenberg’s case, but so far it has not been granted.
Canada further infuriated the Chinese government with its recent spearheading of a declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.
While the Canadian government insisted the declaration, which had been sponsored by 58 countries in mid-February, was not aimed at any single country, China interpreted the move as an attack.
In an article published in the Global Times, an English-language paper that effectively functions as a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, Chinese experts were cited calling the declaration an “ill-considered attack designed to provoke China.”
“As such, China will not be scared and make compromises, Canada’s chosen diplomatic approach has never worked before, and will not achieve any goal in the future, and this very act of Canada will just ‘rebound in the worst possible way,’ (experts) say,” the Global Times article said.
Less than a month later, that same paper published the report that Kovrig and Spavor’s respective trials will get underway “soon.”
In his statement announcing those trial dates, Garneau said the arbitrary detentions of the two Canadians remain a “top priority” for the Canadian government.
“We continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release,” he said.
— with files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson, Abigail Bimman and Marc-André Cossette and the Associated Press