Every day in his windowless concrete prison cell, Michael Kovrig walks 7,000 steps.
“It takes hours in a small prison cell,” said Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla. “But it’s a way to stay healthy, mentally and emotionally, to keep his body strong and to stay positive.”
This weekend marks 1,000 days since Canadians Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China. To mark the sombre milestone, on Sept. 5 their supporters will walk 7,000 steps through Ottawa, from Windsor Park to Major’s Hill Park.
“As difficult as this milestone is, I’m also inspired by Michael and what he continues to do to stay positive, to maintain hope and faith alive, and to look to the day when he will be free, when he will be able to be back with all of us. And until that day, we must continue the fight,” Nadjibulla told Global News.
“The goal is to get him on a plane to Toronto.”
That goal has now inspired a song called The Plane to Toronto. It was produced by Kovrig’s old Hungarian punk rock band — he was their singer and frontman in the ’90s — to raise awareness about the detention of Kovrig and Spavor.
The “two Michaels” are accused of espionage and their trials were held behind closed doors last spring. Spavor was sentenced in August to 11 years in prison, while Kovrig is still awaiting his verdict. China has a conviction rate of 99 per cent.
A Chinese state-run newspaper now claims Spavor took photos and videos of Chinese military equipment, which he then sent to Kovrig. The article produced no evidence to support the claim and cites “a source close to the matter.”
Canada’s ambassador in Beijing, Dominic Barton, told reporters following Spavor’s sentencing that part of the case hinged on photos he took at airports.
“There’s nothing to his detention other than the fact that he’s a Canadian caught in a bigger geopolitical drama between the United States and China,” Nadjibulla said.
The Canadian government also considers the allegations against Kovrig and Spavor to be baseless and political retribution for the arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the U.S.
The Chinese Communist Party and its state-controlled media apparatus marked 1,000 days of Meng’s detention with propaganda videos and a petition containing nearly 15 million signatures calling for her release.
“I think that is very much for a domestic audience as much as it is for a foreign audience,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center.
“The campaign goes hand in hand with a very common narrative that you’ll hear a lot in Chinese politics, which is that China has long suffered at the hands of foreign abuse and at the hands of foreign humiliation, and that now it’s time to step up and to face up to countries like Canada.”
Meng’s extradition hearing concluded in August with a ruling expected later this year. If the judge recommends Meng be extradited to New York to face charges, the Canadian government will still have an opportunity to intervene. The final decision in all extradition cases falls to Canada’s minister of justice, the attorney general.
“The lives of two Canadians are I think of sufficient importance for the minister of justice to have acted long ago on this case,” said Gar Pardy, a former director-general of consular affairs for Canada, who is credited with helping to secure the release of more than 100 Canadians detained or in trouble abroad during his career.
“Over the years, we have always reached out into a dangerous world and help Canadians who are in difficulty,” Pardy told Global News. “The difficulties (in this case) are unique in some ways because another government is involved. But it is a set of difficulties that can be resolved without any danger or any damage to Canadian long-term policy.”
The Trudeau government has long rebuffed calls for a prisoner swap — Meng for the two Michaels — claiming the move would put other Canadian travellers at risk of becoming political hostages.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was asked by Global News on Friday whether he would consider releasing Meng in exchange for the two Michaels if elected prime minister. He did not answer the question directly but advocated a tougher stance against Beijing.
“I’ll consider Magnitsky sanctions against Chinese leaders who have been holding our citizens for almost 1,000 days as diplomatic hostages,” O’Toole said. “Mr. Trudeau has not taken this situation seriously and I think about the families of the two Michaels most days.”
The families of Kovrig and Spavor are expected to join the march for the Michaels in Ottawa Sunday, including Nadjibulla.
“Here we are 1,000 days into this,” she said. “And I sincerely hope that we are at the end, in the final inning of this geopolitical drama, and that Michael will finally be able to come home.”