This “is not your average criminal case in China,” Lynette Ong, political scientist at University of Toronto, told Global News on Thursday.
In trials involving “state subversive activities” she said, the conviction rate is “very, very high, usually around 99 per cent.”
Nevertheless, “we shouldn’t be so pessimistic to draw the conclusion in advance that they will receive a guilty conviction,” Ong said, but “we should be prepared for the worst.”
Given Chinese courts have the power, “the autonomy to release them, to deport them,” the two Canadian men “might be used as some sort of bargaining chip for the Chinese to press certain things on the U.S.,” Ong further noted.
Thursday marks the first high-level in-person talks of the Biden presidency with China, but it’s unclear whether the issue of the two Michaels will be brought up by American officials.
While the U.S president has always maintained that he does not support the detention of the two Michaels and that “Canada and the United States will stand together against abuse of universal rights and democratic freedom,” China’s foreign ministry holds that the timing of the Anchorage talks is not linked to the trials of the two Michaels.
“The trials have nothing to do with China-U.S. high-level strategic dialogue,” Chinese ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday.
Espionage is punishable in China by life in prison with a minimum sentence of 10 years. Sometimes, “the death penalty is available,” too, Charles Burton, former diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing, told Global News Thursday.
This trial, “clearly it’s political,” Burton said and even though there is “no evidence” confirming the two Michaels are international spies, “certainly there will be conviction.”
The sort of sentence they are likely to receive, however, is still very uncertain.
Kevin Garratt, for instance, a Canadian who was held in the same prison as Michael Spavor, on similar charges, had a secret one-day trial, Burton said.
Garratt was held in China for two years on suspicion of spying. He was arrested, along with his wife Julia, in August 2014 in Dandong, a city that borders North Korea.
While Julia was released in February 2015, Kevin was later charged with stealing secrets and espionage for Canadian intelligence agencies.
There was “a delay of some months” before Garratt’s sentencing, but “once the sentence was handed down, Mr. Garratt was returned to Canada,” Burton noted.
“So, there is some precedent for optimism in this matter,” Burton added.
However, former British journalist Peter Humphrey, known for his arrest by the Shanghai Police based on allegations of having illegally acquired personal data, holds there “will be no justice” in the Michaels’ trials.
“Justice itself will be on trial in both of those courtrooms,” he told Global News Thursday.
“There is no opportunity to orchestrate a real genuine defense with genuine defense lawyers who can present genuine evidence and arguments. That just doesn’t happen. It’s all pretty scripted by the Chinese authorities,” Humphrey added.
“What you’re going to see is a deliberate act of humiliation,” he said.
More than 99 per cent “of all Chinese prosecutions end in conviction,” he said, and “it’s been like that every year for decades, and that’s not going to change tomorrow or Monday.”
“The charge might change, but I doubt it. I don’t see a happy outcome from this unless the Chinese authorities have had an attack of sanity and humanity,” Humphrey noted.
Kovrig and Spavor were arrested in China in 2018, shortly after Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou was detained by authorities in British Columbia on an extradition charge from the United States.
Canadian officials have repeatedly called for their release, calling their detention arbitrary.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Canada’s foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau said their detention is “a top priority for the Government of Canada.”
“And we continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release,” he said.
“We believe these detentions are arbitrary, and remain deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings,” he said.
Earlier on Thursday, Michael Spavor’s family released a statement, calling for his “unconditional release.”
“His continued unjust detention depriving him of his liberty is both unfair and unreasonable, especially given the lack of transparency in the case,” the statement said.
Spavor’s trial is understood to take place on March 19, and Kovrig’s is said to be slated for March 22. Canadian officials have not been granted permission to attend the trials, Global Affairs has confirmed.