Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday unequivocally rejected the idea of a Cold War-style prisoner exchange between Canada and China to secure the release of two Canadians charged with espionage by Beijing in an apparent retaliation for the arrest by Ottawa of a top Huawei executive.
At his daily pandemic briefing in Ottawa, Trudeau was asked about the suggestion by a former Liberal cabinet minister to swap Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who’s under house arrest awaiting the results of extradition proceedings to the U.S., for Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
“No, we’re not considering that,” a visibly frustrated Trudeau responded.
“Canada has a strong and independent justice system, we will ensure that it will go through it’s proper forces and anyone who is considering weakening our values or weakening the independence of our justice system doesn’t understand the importance of standing strong for our principles and our values.”
‘Political pressure on Canada’
Trudeau acknowledged that the federal government has tools at its disposal that “haven’t been used in a very-very long time” but said officials “will not interfere politically in the unfolding of our rigorous independent justice system.”
Trudeau said Chinese officials made it clear in the days following their arrests of Kovrig and Spavor in December of 2018 that their imprisonments were linked with Canada’s detention of Meng on a U.S. arrest warrant days earlier.
Meng was arrested on Dec. 1, 2018 during a layover at Vancouver airport and Kovrig and Spavor were arrested nine days later.
“They made those links from the very beginning, and continue to put political pressure on Canada through that detention,” Trudeau said Monday.
“It has been obvious from the beginning that this was a political decision made by the Chinese government, and we deplore it, and have from the very beginning.”
Beijing told Trudeau on Monday to “stop making irresponsible remarks” and using “double standards.”
“China urges the relevant Canadian leader to earnestly respect the spirit of the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian.
Pompeo calls for release of jailed Canadians
On Monday, Trudeau thanked allies, including the United States, who have criticized China for “using arbitrary detentions as a means to political ends.” He said Canada and its allies “around the world” remain united against this Chinese practice.
Earlier Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to release the Canadians, saying they face “groundless” charges of spying.
“The United States stands with Canada in calling on Beijing for the immediate release of the two men and rejects the use of these unjustified detentions to coerce Canada,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“Additionally, we echo Canada’s call for immediate consular access to its two citizens, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as China has prohibited such access for almost six months, and the world has no knowledge of the two Canadians’ condition.”
Chinese authorities announced the charges against Kovrig and Spavor on Friday, after the two had spent more than 550 days in prison without access to lawyers or family.
Since January, China has prevented Canadian diplomats from visiting Kovrig and Spavor, citing COVID-19 restrictions.
The U.S. wants to prosecute Meng for fraud, alleging she lied to banks in Hong Kong about her company’s connections with Iran, which could possibly violate U.S. sanctions.
Last month, a British Columbia Supreme Court judge ruled the allegations against Meng could constitute a crime in Canada. That meant Meng’s case remains before the court, unresolved.
Last week, Meng’s lawyers accused the Americans of misleading the B.C. court and said they are seeking a stay in the proceedings.
With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press