Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained in China, are shown in these 2018 images taken from video. They been held in harsh conditions in Chinese jails since December 2018 in what is widely seen as retaliation for the arrest in Canada upon U.S. request of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP)

Canadian detainees mark 603 days in Chinese custody

The release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor arbitrarily detained by China on trumped up charges for more than 600 days remains “a top priority” for the federal government, says a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

“Canada is extremely disappointed that China has chosen to proceed with formal charges against Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” Adam Austen said in a statement, calling for their immediate release.

“We are deeply concerned that Canadian officials have not been granted consular access to Mr. Kovrig or Mr. Spavor since mid-January.”

Up until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian officials were allowed to see the two men roughly once a month. But Chinese authorities have stopped those consular visits, citing health concerns.

Canadian officials continue to raise with Chinese counterparts Canada’s request for immediate consular access to Kovrig and Spavor – and all Canadians detained in China – in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Austen added.

“We will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that access is granted and international law is respected,” Austen said.

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 separately detained by Chinese authorities on Dec. 10, 2018.

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, leaves her home to go to B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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 is fighting extradition to the United States over allegations of lying to U.S. banks about Huawei’s relationship with a subsidiary doing business in Iran and thus skirting American sanctions on Tehran.

In June, Chinese prosecutors charged Kovrig and Spavor in an apparent bid to step up pressure on Canada to drop the U.S. extradition request for the 48-year-old daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei .

Kovrig was charged by Beijing on suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence. Spavor was charged in Dandong, a city near the North Korean border, on suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.

Robert Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, said the charges against Kovrig are bogus.

“Let’s be clear why he is being detained,” Malley said in a video shared on Twitter. “It’s not because of anything he said. It’s not because of anything he did. It’s because he is a Canadian citizen who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Kovrig’s detention amounts to “hostage diplomacy,” Malley said.

“It’s China’s attempt to put pressure on Canada’s government to release one of its citizens,” Malley said. “China might have grievances with Canada, it may have grievances with the United States, but it shouldn’t take them out on an innocent colleague of ours, Michael Kovrig.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to interfere in the extradition process and release Meng in exchange for Kovrig and Spavor, arguing that it would put millions of Canadians travelling and living abroad in danger.

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