Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton gives a statement near the Dandong city detention center after attending the guilty verdict hearing on Canadian businessman Michael Spavor for spying charges in the border city of Dandong, in China's northeast Liaoning province, on August 11, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

A Chinese court on Wednesday jailed Canadian businessman Michael Spavor for 11 years for spying, which Ottawa swiftly condemned as politically orchestrated.

Spavor was detained in 2018 along with compatriot Michael Kovrig on what Ottawa has said are trumped-up charges after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on a US extradition warrant.

Relations between the two countries have hit rock bottom, with China also accusing Canada of politicizing legal cases.

Spavor “was convicted of espionage and illegally providing state secrets,” Dandong city’s Intermediate People’s Court said in a statement.

“He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.”

The Canadian ambassador to China hit out at the decision, linking it and the upholding on Tuesday of the death sentence against another national, to Meng’s ongoing hearings in Vancouver.

“I don’t take it as a coincidence that we have heard the verdicts of these two cases while that trial is going on,” Dominic Barton told reporters.

“I don’t want to talk in detail on that.”

In a message relayed in a consular visit after the sentencing, Spavor said: “Thank you for all your support. I am in good spirits. I want to get home.”

Spavor can appeal the sentence, which was handed down after prosecutors showed the court evidence including photos “at airports … places where one should not take photos and there had been some that included some military aircraft,” the ambassador added.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this decision rendered after a legal process that lacked both fairness and transparency,” the ambassador said.

“We (have maintained) from the beginning that Michael Sapvor and Michael Kovrig are being detained arbitrarily,” Barton said.

“We are disappointed … Eleven years is a long time.”

Cut off from the world

The Spavor verdict comes a day after a Chinese court upheld the death sentence of another Canadian citizen on a drug-smuggling conviction.

Spavor and Kovrig – a former diplomat – were formally charged with spying in June last year and their separate trials took place in March.

The pair have had almost no contact with the outside world since their detention.

Virtual consular visits resumed in October after a nine-month hiatus, which authorities said was due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Canadian diplomats, barred from entering Spavor’s three-hour trial in Dandong this March, were present during Wednesday’s verdict and sentencing.

His family has maintained he was innocent of the accusations against him, saying he had done much as a businessman to “build constructive ties” between Canada, China and North Korea.

Spavor organized cultural visits to Pyongyang, where he met Kim Jong Un and helped curdle the unlikely friendship between the North Korean leader and former NBA star Dennis Rodman.

Before his detention, he was mainly based in Dandong, the Chinese city bordering North Korea.

Canadians Michael Spavor, left, and Michael Kovrig have been held in China. Photos: AFP / Crisis Group

Meng hearings

While Beijing has insisted the detention of the two Canadians is lawful, it calls Meng’s case “a purely political incident.”

Meng’s extradition hearings began last week in Vancouver, after nearly three years of court battles and diplomatic sparring.

The 49-year-old is the daughter of Chinese tech giant Huawei’s founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei.

She is fighting extradition to the United States where she is accused of defrauding HSBC Bank by misrepresenting the relationship between Huawei and Skycom, a subsidiary that sold telecom gear to Iran.

That deal put HSBC in jeopardy as it risked breaching US sanctions against Tehran. 

Meng, whose legal team deny the allegations and say the US case is flawed, lives in a mansion in Vancouver, but has to wear an ankle bracelet to monitor her movements at all times.

Her hearings are due to end on August 20, but no decision on her extradition is expected for several months.

Observers say the likely verdicts and sentences for both Canadians will track Meng’s trial as China seeks leverage over Canada.

Before the verdict, Canada’s former ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said that Spavor would likely receive a “harsh sentence” as Chinese leaders seek to pressure Canada into returning Meng.

Associate Professor Lynette Ong of the University of Toronto added: “If we see this as the beginning of a political bargaining process, the Chinese (are) likely to want to appear strong in the first instance.”

China’s judicial system convicts most people who stand trial.