China will put two Canadians on trial within days following their arrests more than two years ago in apparent retaliation for the detention of a top Huawei executive, the Canadian government said Wednesday.
Relations between Beijing and Ottawa have plunged since China detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor in 2018 – days after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on fraud charges.
Spying charges against the two Canadians are widely seen in the West as payback for Meng’s arrest, though China denies this.
Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said Ottawa’s Beijing embassy had been notified that Spavor and Kovrig would go on trial on Friday and Monday respectively.
Garneau expressed concern about them going to trial now, renewing objections to their “arbitrary detentions” and saying Ottawa “remains deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings.”
Canadian officials had demanded immediate consular access to the men and asked to attend the trials.
Spavor is being held in Dandong while Kovrig was jailed in Beijing. China’s judicial system convicts most people who stand trial and the pair face up to life in prison if found guilty of espionage and providing state secrets.
Their court dates come as an extradition hearing for Meng enters its final months. It is scheduled to wrap up in May, barring appeals.
Meng was arrested on a US warrant during a stopover in Vancouver in December 2018, just nine days before the Canadians were detained.
The United States wants Meng – daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei – extradited to face trial on charges related to the Chinese telecom equipment maker’s alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran.
Meng, 49, is accused of having lied to the HSBC investment bank about Huawei’s relationship with subsidiary Skycom, putting the bank at risk of violating the sanctions as it continued to clear US dollar transactions for Huawei.
Meng and Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker, deny the charges.
US and Chinese top foreign officials are also scheduled to hold high-level meetings in Alaska on Thursday.
US President Joe Biden has publicly called for the Canadian pair’s release, saying after a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month that “human beings are not bartering chips.”
Trudeau has accused Beijing of concocting charges against Kovrig and Spavor to put pressure on Canada to release Meng, while affirming the independence of Canada’s judicial system in dealing with the US extradition request.
On Wednesday, Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, told the CBC that the trial date means time is running out for her husband to be freed through diplomacy.
“It has been incredibly difficult. We live with so much unknown and anxiety about what may happen each day,” she said. “We’ve got to bring Michael and Michael Spavor home.”
The arrests of Meng, Kovrig and Spavor have roiled diplomatic relations between China and Canada, which has enlisted the help of allies to apply pressure on China – its second largest trading partner.
As part of that effort, Ottawa recently unveiled a declaration signed by 58 countries against “arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations,” though it did not specifically mention China.
The Canadian parliament also provoked China’s ire by voting to label its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang as genocide.
Beijing, meanwhile, has called the charges against Meng “completely political,” and part of a plot to crush its top global technology firm.
Meng’s lawyers have argued that she is “a bargaining chip – a pawn – in an economic contest between two global superpowers,” and that former US president Donald Trump poisoned her chances of a fair trial when he said that he might intervene in her case in exchange for Chinese trade concessions.
If convicted in a US court, Meng could face more than 30 years in prison. She remains under house arrest in her Vancouver mansion.