As two Canadians detained in China await the verdicts of their respective trials, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says new sanctions imposed on China have no relation to the ongoing detentions.
Michael Spavor’s case went to trial on Friday, concluding with no verdict after just two hours. Michael Kovrig’s trial also ended without a decision Monday, though Chinese authorities have pledged to provide one at a later date. Canadian officials, the media and the public were barred from both trials.
Just hours after the conclusion of Kovrig’s trial, Canada hit four Chinese officials and one entity with sanctions over what Trudeau called their participation in “gross and systematic human rights violations” against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region.
Still, when pressed on whether there is any connection between the two events, Trudeau denied a link.
“No. There is no link between these two events. We’ve been denouncing the arbitrary detention of the two Michaels for some time now,” Trudeau said.
He reiterated that denouncement once again during his remarks on Monday.
“Last night, Michael Kovrig’s trial took place. I’d like to thank the representatives of 22 countries, in addition to the EU, who were present in a show of solidarity for free democracies around the world,” Trudeau said, speaking in French.
“We continue, together, to push for their freedom. Their arbitrary detention is unacceptable, and we won’t give up until both are here at home.”
As the shadowy proceedings set off behind closed doors, diplomats from 22 different countries tried to attend Kovrig’s trial, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau’s office confirmed, including delegates from the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, France and Australia. Diplomats from eight countries also attempted to watch Spavor’s trial on Friday. All were denied access to both proceedings.
“We are deeply troubled by the total lack of transparency surrounding these hearings and we continue to work towards an immediate end to their arbitrary detention,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau in a Monday statement.
“The eyes of the world are on these cases and proceedings and I want to thank our international partners for their continued support and solidarity.”
That display of support outside the courtroom still meant something to those close to Kovrig, despite the fact that none of the officials were allowed to enter the courthouse.
“I can’t even begin to imagine what the day must have been like for him to be there all alone in that courtroom,” said Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, speaking from Toronto in an interview with Global News on Monday.
“It was really heartening to see all those people standing in solidarity with him and with Canada on the sidewalk outside of the courtroom.”
China justified the opaque nature of the proceedings by insisting that the “state secrets” that had to be discussed in both cases made it impossible to open the courtroom doors.
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 of 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.
“This has been a very, very long journey…and Canadians have been steadfast in their support no matter what else is happening through the pandemic,” said Nadjibulla.
“We don’t have control over much here, but knowing that so many millions are praying for their safe return and hoping that our government and others are doing everything possible, that means a lot. And, I hope, we will all live for the day when Michael is free.”
Garneau’s Monday statement is the latest in a string of comments from the Canadian government that express frustration with the handling of the trials.
“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.
When pressed on whether he believed the trials for the two men would be fair, Trudeau cited the shadowy nature of the proceedings as a factor that makes any determination of fairness difficult to make.
“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 new U.S. administration has voiced its support for Canada’s efforts to free the two detained men. Given the U.S. extradition order at the centre of Meng’s arrest — an arrest that then spurred the retaliatory arrest of the two Canadians — the U.S. is a key player in the push to bring Spavor and Kovrig home.
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.”
— with files from Global News’ David Lao