Trudeau said the two Canadians boarded a plane Friday night with Canada’s ambassador to China Dominic Barton. The plane is expected to land in Canada Saturday morning.
“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau said.
“It is good news for all of us that they are on their way home to their families.”
Trudeau made the announcement hours after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was released from house arrest in Vancouver and allowed to return home to China after securing a deal to drop U.S. charges against her.
As part of the new deferred prosecution agreement, Meng plead not guilty to charges that she committed fraud by misleading the HSBC bank about the company’s business dealings in Iran.
Kovrig, a former diplomat, and businessman Spavor were detained in China days after Meng was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December 2018 on behalf of the United States.
The two men were convicted on espionage charges in separate trials earlier this year. Spavor was later sentenced to 11 years in prison, while a sentence had yet to be issued for Kovrig.
Canada has repeatedly demanded China release the pair, saying they were arbitrarily detained on bogus charges.
China has publicly maintained that there is no connection between Meng’s case and the men’s imprisonment. But Beijing has also dropped broad hints that if she were allowed to go free, that could benefit the two Canadians.
Experts say the timing of the pair’s release Friday has made the link with Meng’s arrest explicit.
“We always knew that they were linked, it’s just that no one wanted to say it out loud,” said Yves Tiberghien, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in Canada-China relations.
“What this also shows, however, is how hard diplomats have been working behind closed doors. That’s I think why we see Ambassador Barton is on the plane.”
Trudeau would not give further details about how Kovrig and Spavor’s freedom was secured, or where they would be arriving in Canada.
He said his government’s primary focus was on “getting these two men home safely.” He also thanked diplomats and government officials for their “tireless” work.
Meng’s deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. — which allowed the Huawei executive to plead not guilty to the charges against her while accepting responsibility for her actions in breaking sanctions with Iran — made no mention of Kovrig and Spavor.
But experts including Tiberghien believe it’s highly likely the two Canadians were brought up behind the scenes during negotiations on the deal.
Because of that, they agreed it was likely Kovrig and Spavor would be released soon — though that was before Trudeau’s announcement Friday night.
Spavor’s 11-year prison sentence had also fueled speculation that he could be simply deported by China, and that Kovrig would face the same fate.
Michael Byer, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, says China’s decision to release Kovrig and Spavor now could be a signal that Beijing is ready to mend fences with Canada.
“Either they don’t care what people think — which is not good, because it shows that they’re not concerned about international opinion on many things — or they simply want to get the relationships with the United States and Canada back on track as quickly as possible,” he said.
“It could be a combination of those two things, but either way, (the two men’s release) is a surprise, and it’s a fantastic surprise.”
Canada had pressed the United States under both former president Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden to help convince China to free Kovrig and Spavor, and to lead the international community in condemning arbitrary detentions.
In his first call to a foreign leader after being sworn in as president in January, Biden pledged to Trudeau that his administration would help in the effort.
“The U.S. Government stands with the international community in welcoming the decision by People’s Republic of China authorities to release Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig after more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention. We are pleased that they are returning home to Canada,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Friday.
Comfort Ero, the vice president of the International Crisis Group which Kovrig is aligned with, offered effusive thanks that the 1,020-day ordeal had ended.
“To Beijing: We welcome this most just decision. To Ottawa: Thank you for your steadfast support for our colleague. To the United States: Thank you for your willingness to support an ally and our colleague. To the inimitable, indefatigable, and inspiring Michael Kovrig, welcome home,” said Ero.
–With files from the Canadian Press