Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, have spent more than 560 days in Chinese prisons in harsh conditions, and have not been allowed consular visits since January officials indicate. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

Canada calls for virtual consular access to detained Canadians amid COVID-19

Foreign Affairs Minister Fracois-Philippe Champagne is calling on Chinese authorities to allow virtual consular access to Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who marked 500 days in Chinese detention on Thursday.

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 on Dec. 10, 2018.

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.”

Canadian officials in China used to get regular monthly consular visits to both men, but those visits have stopped since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China in late December.

500 days too much

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on March 9, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

“The detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for 500 days is 500 days too much,” Champagne told reporters during a teleconference call from his constituency in Shawinigan, Quebec. “I will continue to advocate for them at every step of the way.”

Champagne said he is in regular contact with the families of both men and has discussed their plight in a recent call with Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi and has asked for clemency for Robert Schellenberg who was arrested in 2014 on drug charges.

Following Meng’s detention, and the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor, he was retried and his 15 year sentence was increased to a death penalty.

“I’ve also proposed and insisted that Canada obtain consular access to the detainees,” Champagne said. “I proposed virtual consular access to make sure that Canada could exercise its rights under the Vienna Convention, to have access to detainees.”

‘Arbitrarily detained’

The federal government will continue to advocate and to stand up for Canadian detainees, Champagne said.

“We have gathered also the international community, and I think we can speak with one voice when we say we need Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been arbitrarily detained, to be released as soon as possible.”

Champagne said it appears that Chinese authorities are considering the Canadian proposal.

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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