Canadian Embassy Charge d'Affaires Jim Nickel (C) and other diplomats gather after they were denied entry to the closed trial for Canadian Michael Kovrig on March 22, 2021 in Beijing, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Trial of Michael Kovrig concludes with verdict to come later

The trial of Michael Kovrig, one of the two Canadians held in China for more than two years on espionage charges, concluded in a closed Beijing courtroom on Monday with the verdict expected at an unspecified later date.

Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, was arrested in Beijing on Dec. 10, 2018, on the same day Chinese authorities arrested Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor in the northeastern city of Dandong.

Their arrest was widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou.

Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co., was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018 upon the request of U.S. authorities. The 48-year-old daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei is wanted in the U.S. on charges of committing fraud related to the company’s dealings with Iran.

Meng’s arrest set off a diplomatic showdown between Canada and China, and Ottawa is caught in the fight between Beijing and Washington.

Beijing, however, insists the detentions of Kovrig and Spavor are not linked to the arrest of Meng, who was released on bail in Vancouver as she fights extradition to the United States.

Police ask journalists to move back from the road as United States Embassy Acting Deputy Chief of Mission William Klein, center, and other diplomats request entry to the trial for Canadian Michael Kovrig on March 22, 2021 at a court in Beijing, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In a statement posted around 6:30 p.m. local time, the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court said Kovrig appeared with his lawyer to face charges for spying on state secrets and providing intelligence outside the country. The statement said the verdict, like the one for Spavor, who was tried on Friday, would be announced at a later date.

The court said Kovrig’s trial was held in private because the case involves state secrets.

“We’ve requested access to Michael Kovrig’s hearing repeatedly but that access is being denied” over national security reasons, said Jim Nickel, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of Canada in China, outside the court in Beijing.

Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, shown in these 2018 images from video, both face maximum sentences of life in prison if convicted of spying. (THE CANADIAN Press, The Associated Press)

In a statement released Monday, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said the safe return of Kovrig and Spavor remains his top priority.

“We are deeply troubled by the total lack of transparency surrounding these hearings and we continue to work towards an immediate end to their arbitrary detention,” Garneau said.

“Canadian officials are seeking continued consular access to Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the China-Canada Consular Agreement, and will continue to support these men and their families during this unacceptable ordeal.”

Garneau also thanked more than two dozen allies for “echoing Canada’s message that these detentions are unacceptable.”

In a show of solidarity, 28 diplomats from 26 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and Czech Republic, turned up outside the court on Monday, which was marked by a heavy police presence.

William Klein (behind R), the acting deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Beijing, and Jim Nickel (front R), the charge d’affaires of the Canadian embassy in Beijing, speak to the media outside the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing on March 22, 2021, after being refused access to try and attend the trial for Michael Kovrig, a Canadian detained more than two years ago in China on espionage charges. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

Kovrig’s trial in Beijing followed the same pattern as that of Spavor, whose closed-door court hearing in Dandong lasted about two hours on Friday.

Canadian and other diplomats were not allowed to attend Spavor’s trial on what China said were national security grounds.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday slammed what he called China’s “coercive diplomacy” and decried the “lack of transparency” surrounding the trials for the Two Michaels, as they’ve become known in Canada.

“China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians. It is about the respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that is at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy they have engaged in,” Trudeau said Friday during his daily media briefing.

Observers have said the likely convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby they are released and sent back to Canada. Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99 per cent.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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