Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling out China for its lack of transparency surrounding the trials of the two Canadians detained in China.
The comments come as the trials for Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been detained since 2018, are starting to get underway. While Kovrig’s trial is scheduled for Monday, Spavor appeared before the Chinese courts Thursday night. His closed-door trial lasted just two hours and ended without a verdict.
“Let me be very clear. Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings,” Trudeau said, speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Friday.
He added that Canada’s “top priority” remains securing the release of Spavor and Kovrig.
“We will continue to work tirelessly to bring them home as soon as possible,” Trudeau said.
“Going forward, we will continue to be in close contact with the families during this difficult time. To their loved ones, know that today and every day, Canadians are with you and are thinking of both Michaels.”
Trudeau isn’t the first to issue a rebuke of China’s shadowy handling of the trials. In a statement issued on Wednesday, Garneau called also the detentions “arbitrary” and said he remains “deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings.”
The Chinese government was angered by the comments, issuing a press release Friday morning that called Canada “hypocritical and arrogant” over its criticism of China’s handling of the arbitrary detentions.
“On the one hand, the Canadian side claims that it upholds the rule of law, but on the other hand, it makes irresponsible remarks with regards to China’s handling relevant cases in accordance with law,” read a statement from a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Canada, sent to Global News.
“How hypocritical and arrogant!”
Trudeau responded to China’s statement on Friday, rebuking the notion that Canada has anything but respect for the rule of law.
“Canada is a country of the rule of law. We move forward in full respect of that rule of law, and we move forward in full transparency,” he said.
When pressed on whether he believes China will give Spavor and Kovrig fair trials, Trudeau explained that the closed-door nature of the hearings leaves Canada in the dark.
“One of the challenges around the lack of transparency on that process is it becomes extremely difficult to make judgments around whether or not the trial was fair,” Trudeau replied.
“I’m going to continue to advocate for the release of these two Michaels who have been arbitrarily detained and push for transparency around the processes by which these trials are ongoing”
The Conservatives echoed Trudeau’s concerns about the fairness of the trials.
“We know that unlike Canada, China’s courts are not based on the rule of law and we have little confidence that Mr. Spavor received a fair trial,” read a statement from Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong.
“We continue to demand that the Chinese Communist regime end the arbitrary and unlawful detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.”
Thursday night, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission Jim Nickel knocked on the Chinese courthouse door ahead of Spavor’s trial, but was refused entry. While he was told when the trial would start, he was left in the dark when it came to the duration of the trial or when a verdict would be announced.
Media and the public were also barred from the room, with China citing the “state secrets” involved in the case as justification.
Meanwhile, China has called Canadian criticism of the lack of transparency and overall arbitrary nature of the arrests “fact-distorting.”
“The Chinese side expresses its strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition,” the embassy spokesperson said.
Both Spavor and Kovrig 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.
The two Canadians 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 issued just hours after Canadian officials, the media and the public were barred from attending Spavor’s trial, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy insisted that China is “a country with rule of law.”
“When it comes to arbitrary detention, Ms. Meng Wanzhou has been arbitrarily detained for over two years despite the fact that she hasn’t violated any Canadian law. This is arbitrary detention in every sense of the term,” they said, despite the fact that Canada was fulfilling its extradition obligations with the United States.
“We urge the Canadian side to earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks and interfering in China’s handling of cases in accordance with law in any form.”
As China continues to link Meng’s arrest to the cases of the two detained Canadians, 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.
As part of Canada’s effort to free the two detained Canadians, Canada has been pushing allies to raise the plights of Spavor and Kovrig in their own bilateral discussions with China.
“China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians, it is about the respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that is at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy they have engaged in,” Trudeau said.
Given the U.S. extradition order at the center of Meng’s arrest, experts have said that the United States could be the key to cooling off the boiling tensions between Canada and China.
“We have nothing on the table with regard to Kovrig and Spavor,” said Charles Burton, a senior fellow and China expert at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
“So it does seem to me that Canada is more or less standing idly by while the United States and China try and sort this matter out.”
High-level U.S. officials are currently meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, where Trudeau said Friday that he has “confidence” the issue of the two detained Canadians will be raised.
Following a meeting with Trudeau in late February, U.S. President Joe Biden said the two countries are working together to try to secure the release of the two detained Canadians.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said.
“We’re going to work together until we get their safe return.”