Businessman Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, remain imprisoned in China. (Associated Press/International Crisis Group/Canadian Press)

Canadian detainees mark 365 days in Chinese captivity

Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor will mark a sad anniversary Tuesday.

Dec. 10 marks exactly a year since Kovrig, who took a leave of absence from Global Affairs Canada to work as the North East Asia analyst for the non-governmental think tank International Crisis Group, and Spavor, a China-based Canadian entrepreneur, were detained by Chinese authorities.

Their arrests came days after Canadian officials arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecom giant Huawei, at the request of U.S. authorities.

Meng, who is also the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, is fighting extradition to the United States over allegations she was involved in violating sanctions on Iran.

Chinese officials said Kovrig and Spavor are being investigated for “endangering national security.”

‘Absolute priority’

A police officer gestures at the photographer outside the embassy of Canada in Beijing, China, Dec. 12, 2018. (Thomas Peter/REUTERS)

While the two men receive regular monthly consular visits by Canadian diplomats, they have been denied access to lawyers and their family members since their arrest last year.

“These two Canadians are and will remain our absolute priority,” Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said in a statement Monday. “We will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians.”

The Canadian government has been very tight-lipped about the conditions of their detention in China, citing federal privacy laws that limit what Canadian diplomats, who visit the two men once every four or five weeks, can reveal.

Initial media reports suggested that Kovrig, for example, was subjected to lengthy daily interrogations and was held in isolation under constant surveillance.

Robert Malley, the head of the International Crisis Group, told CBC News that Kovrig is trying to hang on to his sense of humour to get him through the ordeal.

“He’s strong, he’s resilient,” he said in an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics on Friday, adding he has a “sense of humour and a sense of perspective.”

‘Knocking at every door’

Louis Huang holds a placard calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside a court hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 6, 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/REUTERS)

Karime Lebhour, a spokesperson for International Crisis Group, said the think-tank is taking “a backseat” to the federal government’s efforts to free Kovrig.

“We’re trying to support the effort, we’re trying to support them in any way we can,” Lebhour told Radio Canada International.

Malley, a former high-ranking official in the Obama administration, and all the past presidents of the International Crisis Group have mobilized their networks to help Kovrig, Lebhour said in a phone interview from Washington D.C.

“We’re trying to knock at every door possible but really the negotiation on the release of Michael is led by the Canadians,” Lebhour said. “They are in the driver’s seat.”

Engagement with China

The past and present leaders of the International Crisis Group, including Canada’s own Louise Arbour, are advocating for engagement with China, Lebhour said.

While foreign policy hawks in the U.S. and Canada advocate for a much harder line with China, that’s not the position of the International Crisis Group, he said.

“China is a growing power in the world, they want to play a growing role in the international affairs and we – Western countries – should absolutely engage with China,” Lebhour said. “And the irony of this case is that Michael himself was the point person for the International Crisis Group advocating that: he was living in China, speaking Chinese, trying to understand China’s role in the world.”

The detention of Kovrig and Spavor has led to a diplomatic crisis in the relations between China and Canada.

China in turn is demanding Meng’s unconditional release and has been ratcheting up diplomatic and economic pressure on Canada.

A Canadian court released Meng on bail while she awaits the results of her extradition hearing.

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