China to prosecute two Canadian citizens on espionage charges

China has launched a public prosecution against two Canadian citizens on espionage charges 18 months after they were seized in retaliation for the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver.

Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, will be prosecuted in a Beijing court on charges related to spying and state secrets, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate said on its official Weibo account on Friday. 

Michael Spavor, who once organised cultural trips to North Korea, will be prosecuted in a court in the northern Chinese city of Dandong, which borders the country. He faces similar charges.

The two Canadians were detained in late 2018 shortly after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, following a US extradition request.

Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor have been held in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep and interrogated regularly. They have been allowed one brief consular visit per month, and no access to lawyers prior to their formal arrest.

Ms Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, has been allowed to move around Vancouver during the day pending her extradition and has lived in one of the two mansions she owns in the city.

The arrest and charging of Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor has led to increased tension between China, Canada and the US, and has raised concerns among the global business community in the country.

At the same time as the formal prosecution of the Canadians was launched, China’s standing committee of the National People’s Congress was drafting a national security law to be implemented in Hong Kong. The decision to impose the measure comes after the semi-autonomous territory was rocked by anti-government protests last year. 

The new law has raised fears that locals and foreign nationals could be taken to mainland China and prosecuted under local law, which differs considerably from Hong Kong’s legal system.

Ms Meng is fighting extradition from Canada to the US on charges that her company violated US sanctions on Iran. Last month, she lost a bid to dismiss the extradition request.

The Canadians’ detention was widely viewed as retaliation for the arrest of Ms Meng, with Ottawa saying Beijing has “arbitrarily detained” its citizens. Their seizure also sent a chill through the foreign business community in China over fears that political disputes between Beijing and other countries could lead to the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens.

Mr Kovrig is a former diplomat who worked for International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution non-profit organisation, when he was seized in late 2018. Mr Spavor spent many years arranging tours into North Korea and had met the country’s leader Kim Jong Un on several occasions.

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