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Canada urged to pressure China and U.S. to secure release of Spavor, Kovrig

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Canada is being urged by legal and international experts to apply diplomatic pressure on both China and the United States to secure the release of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, following Spavor’s 11-year prison sentence by a Chinese court.

Spavor, an entrepreneur, was detained in China in December 2018 along with Kovrig on allegations of state spying, charges widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in connection with a U.S. extradition request. Meng’s formal extradition hearing began on Wednesday in British Columbia.

Since their arrest, Canada has been pushing for the release of Spavor and Kovrig. Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau condemned Spavor’s sentence on Wednesday.

“This decision was made after a process that lack both fairness and transparency including a trial that did not satisfy the minimum standards required by international law,” Garneau said at a press conference, adding Canada was is ‘intense’ discussions with both Chinese and U.S. officials to free both Spavor and Kovrig, who is still awaiting trial in China.

Trudeau, in a statement, called the sentence unacceptable and unjust.

“For Mr. Spavor, as well as for Michael Kovrig who has also been arbitrarily detained, our top priority remains securing their immediate release. We will continue working around the clock to bring them home as soon as possible,” he said.

Since the arrests in 2018, Canada has decried what it calls “hostage diplomacy” and in February launched the ‘Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations,’ which has now been endorsed by 66 countries.

Spavor’s sentence also included the penalty of deportation, and international experts on Wednesday said the inclusion of that provision may offer a window to getting Spavor released, even though it was not clear whether China would consider allowing him to be deported before the custodial sentence is carried out.

“The fact that the word deportation is part of the decision opens the door for an eventual grand bargain,” Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, told CTVNews on Wednesday.

Saint-Jacques, who served as ambassador from 2012-2016, mentioned the example of Kevin Garratt, a Canadian sentenced by a Chinese court to eight years in prison on spying charges in 2014, but who was deported shortly after sentencing.

“We negotiated his release and the agreement was that he would be sentenced but that in his case the deportation would take place the day after,” he said.

However, Saint-Jacques and others said securing Spavor’s release may also require movement from the United States, which requested that Canada arrest Meng in 2018 on charges related to possible dealings with Iran, which violated trade sanctions.

He pointed out that the arrest of Garratt and his wife had followed Canada’s decision to arrest a Chinese businessman, Su Bin, in 2014 and extradite him to the U.S.

“I went through the same process where clearly the officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me ‘you return Mr. Su and good things will happen to the Garratts,’” he said. “I think the Canadian government needs to continue to put pressure on the (U.S.) justice department to try to come up a plea bargain with Ms. Meng or else drop the charges against her and go only after the company itself, Huawei.”

Chris Burkett, an international lawyer at Deloitte Canada, said the inclusion of deportation to the sentence for Spavor was a “potential quid pro quo” to leverage the return of Meng, who was arrested during the administration of then-U.S. president Donald Trump.

“The case that is at the heart of this which is leading to the request for extradition is a bank fraud case,” he told CTV News Channel. “If the Americans could resolve the case… there would be no reason to hold Meng Wenzhou.”

While U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the immediate and unconditional release of Spavor and Kovrig, the U.S. has so far appeared steadfast in its desire to prosecute Meng.

However, Burkett said Canada’s attempts so far to leverage international support on the issue were likely the right move as opposed to trying to go at it alone.

“I think this all rose obviously during the Trump era and the trade wars. There's a different administration in power in the U.S. now,” he said.

Spavor’s conviction also comes just one day after a different Chinese court upheld a death sentence for Canadian Robert Schellenberg, who was arrested for drug smuggling in 2014 and given a 15-year prison sentence that was then upgraded to a death sentence in early 2019, shortly after Meng’s arrest in Canada.

Spavor, who has now been held for 975 days, can appeal the sentence. His family released a statement on Wednesday offering support for him and thanking the Canadian government for its advocacy.

“While we disagree with the charges, we realize that this is the next step in the process to bring Michael home and we will continue to support him through this challenging time,” the statement read.

“Michael’s life passion has been to bring different cultures together through tourism and events shared between the Korean peninsula and other countries including China and Canada. This situation has not dampened, but strengthened his passion.”

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