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‘Free at last’: Canadian Michael Kovrig, wife speak about emotional return from China

Click to play video: 'Michael Kovrig returns home, and Garneau on the deal to free the two Michaels' Michael Kovrig returns home, and Garneau on the deal to free the two Michaels
WATCH: Michael Kovrig returns home, and Garneau on the deal to free the two Michaels – Sep 26, 2021

After spending nearly three years in Chinese detention, Canadian Michael Kovrig is delighted to be back in Toronto and reunited with his family.

Kovrig, a former diplomat, along with businessman Michael Spavor, touched down on home soil on Saturday following their release from China – in an apparent prisoner swap after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was allowed to return to Shenzhen following a plea deal with the U.S.

Read more: ‘Two Michaels’ welcomed home by friends, family after years in Chinese detention

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embraced the two men upon their arrival at the Calgary airport early Saturday.

After exchanging hugs with the prime minister and bidding goodbye to his fellow captive, Kovrig then boarded another plane bound for Toronto, where his wife Vina Nadjibulla and sister Ariana Botha greeted him with emotional embraces on the tarmac.

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Michael Kovrig embraces his wife Vina Nadjibulla, right, after arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson spoke to Kovrig and his wife at his sister’s home in Toronto hours after landing.

“It was really moving and knowing that so many people knew about the situation, cared about the situation, really helped us get through a very difficult time,” said Kovrig.

“I just want to say thank you very much to all Canadians for the enormous support and all of the effort that so many people have made to help bring Michael Spavor and me home,” he added.

Click to play video: 'Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor arrive in Canada after almost 3 years in Chinese prison' Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor arrive in Canada after almost 3 years in Chinese prison
Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor arrive in Canada after almost 3 years in Chinese prison – Sep 25, 2021

Nadjibulla expressed gratitude and relief for seeing him back home safe and healthy. The couple separated in 2017 but Nadjibulla had been leading efforts to obtain his release.

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“It has been an incredible day,” she told Global News. “I’m speechless.”

“Just two weeks ago, we walked for them – 7,000 steps to their freedom – and here they are, free at last in Canada.”

On Sept. 5, families and supporters of the “Two Michaels” walked 7,000 steps – the same amount Kovrig took in his windowless concrete prison cell every day – through Ottawa, from Windsor Park to Major’s Hill Park, to mark 1,000 days of their detention.

Michael Kovrig, centre, with his wife Vina Nadjibulla, left, and sister Ariana Botha, right. Jeff Semple/Global News

Kovrig and Spavor’s safe return to Canada marks an end to a tense international standoff surrounding the U.S. extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Just as Spavor and Kovrig took off from a Chinese airport late Friday, Meng was making her way back to China from Vancouver after resolving the legal saga that mired all three of them in a geopolitical melee.

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Read more: Could release of 2 Michaels, Meng Wanzhou thaw Canada-China relations? Experts are mixed

The case connecting their fates came to an abrupt conclusion when Meng, the chief financial officer at Huawei Technologies and the daughter of the telecom’s founder, reached a deal with U.S. prosecutors over fraud and conspiracy charges related to American sanctions against Iran.

Meng’s arrest in Vancouver in December 2018 at the behest of the U.S. has been a source of simmering tensions between Ottawa, Washington and Beijing.

Kovrig and Spavor were arrested in China just days after Meng’s apprehension in apparent retaliation.

The two men were convicted on espionage charges in separate trials earlier this year. Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison last month, while a sentence had yet to be issued for Kovrig.

Click to play video: '‘Two Michaels’ and Meng Wanzhou return home' ‘Two Michaels’ and Meng Wanzhou return home
‘Two Michaels’ and Meng Wanzhou return home – Sep 25, 2021

China has publicly maintained that there is no connection between her case and the men’s imprisonment but had also dropped broad hints that her freedom could benefit the two Canadians.

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Canada repeatedly demanded China release the pair, saying they were arbitrarily detained on bogus charges.

Trudeau also consistently ruled out a prisoner swap, trading Meng for the “Two Michaels,” despite pressure from several former Canadian diplomats and parliamentarians.

Michael Kovrig, centre right, waves to media with his wife Vina Nadjibulla, centre left, and sister Ariana Botha after his arrival at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig upon arrival in Calgary, Alta., on Saturday morning. Photo credit: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

Back in Toronto, Kovrig is now looking forward to putting all that behind him, reconnecting with friends and family and “seeing all the beauty of Canada.”

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Nadjibulla said it was a time to heal and rest.

“We brought them home and this is because of all the Canadians who have been with us every step of the way,” she said.

When asked how they planned to celebrate the day, Kovrig said: “I’m running on about two hours of sleep in the last 24-plus hours, so I don’t have any exciting plans just yet.”

— With files from the Canadians Press

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