Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was one of the first to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Handout

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday he is “disappointed” that China has formally charged two Canadians with spying, more than 18 months after their arrest amid a row between Beijing and Ottawa.

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were detained in December 2018, nine days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on a US warrant, in what was seen as tit-for-tat retaliation.

“We’re of course disappointed with the decision taken by the Chinese in the case of the two Michaels,” Trudeau said, renewing calls for their release.

His deputy, Chrystia Freeland, said she was “heartbroken and really angry” and called on China to restore consular access for the pair.

Canada’s former ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, urged Ottawa to take a more aggressive stance.

“We need a strong reaction from the federal government, not just soft diplomatic talk anymore,” he told public broadcaster CBC.

The Supreme People’s Procuratorate said earlier it has begun the prosecution of Kovrig and Spavor, suspected of “foreign espionage” and “providing state secrets.”

The move follows a key ruling allowing Meng to be extradited to the US, which wants to try her on fraud charges related to the Chinese telecom giant’s alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran.

Relations between Canada and China have hit rock bottom over the arrests. Beijing has blocked billions of dollars’ worth of Canadian agricultural exports.

Trudeau said Chinese authorities have “directly linked” the case “to the judicial proceedings against Miss Meng.”

He called this “extremely disappointing because, for us, there obviously are no links, except in politics.”

He vowed with allies to pressure Beijing to “cease the arbitrary detention of these two Canadian citizens who are being held for no other reason than (that) the Chinese government is disappointed with the independent proceedings of the Canadian judiciary.”

Meng, the eldest daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, has been out on bail and living in a mansion in Vancouver. The two Canadians remain in China’s opaque penal system.

Monthly consular visits for Kovrig and Spavor were suspended mid-January when the coronavirus outbreak hit China.

Beijing confirmed Friday that they would not resume until the virus situation improved.

China’s foreign ministry has previously insisted the pair are in good health, held “in a region that is not particularly affected by Covid-19.”

However, people familiar with the matter have told AFP the two have endured hours of interrogation and during the first six months of detention were forced to sleep with the lights on.

Chinese human rights lawyer Li Fangping told AFP their trials would likely be held in secret, with an official lawyer appointed.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday the circumstances surrounding the case were “particularly serious… the facts of the crime are clear and the evidence sufficient.”

‘Arbitrarily detained’

Trudeau’s foreign minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, said after the May ruling over Meng that Canada would “continue to pursue principled engagement with China to address our bilateral differences.”

Champagne said Ottawa also would seek clemency for a third Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, who faces execution on drug charges.

The International Crisis Group think tank, for which Kovrig worked as an advisor on Northeast Asian affairs, rejected the charges.

“This is yet another arbitrary and baseless step in a case that has been arbitrary and baseless from day one. Michael was not endangering China’s security: everything he was doing was in the open and well known to China’s authorities,” group president Robert Malley said in a statement.

Meng is still challenging the lawfulness of her arrest. More hearings are expected in the months ahead and appeals could drag the case out for years.

In contrast, Kovrig and Spavor’s trials could wrap up within six months, Li said.

Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Beijing was probably hoping for “a ‘voluntary’ confession out of one or both of the two Canadians.”

“These trials are thus likely to be quite rapidly dealt with, and the verdict and sentence already determined by the (Communist) Party officials.”