By Barry Ellsworth
TRENTON, Canada (AA) – The detention of two Canadians by China reached one year Tuesday and China used the occasion to announce that the pair will face prosecution on charges of spying.
Michael Kovrig will be tried for "covertly gathering state secrets and intelligence for foreign forces," while Michael Spavor will be prosecuted for "stealing and illegally providing state secrets to foreign forces," the Chinese said Tuesday.
The arrests were widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s detention of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou last December at the request of the Americans, who said she contravened U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Meng, who has been under house arrest in Vancouver, is expected to face an extradition hearing in January. The arrest sparked outrage in Beijing and officials demanded her immediate release.
Speaking about the prosecution of the "two Michaels" as they are often referred to, Canada’s Justice Minister noted that the pair had no legal representation.
"Our heart goes out to them," David Lametti said on television via video. "I know they’ve had consular access, but it troubles me that they haven’t had any access to legal counsel."
Lametti also said that, "We have had the prime minister and now two ministers for foreign affairs who have made it (the release) their top priority."
Ironically, the day before the Chinese announced the prosecutions, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne noted in a statement that Dec. 10 marked the first anniversary of their arrests and that efforts to secure their freedom continued.
"These two Canadians are and will remain our absolute priority," Champagne said. "We will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians" and who have been "arbitrarily" detained.
The opposition Conservative party said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government should create a special committee to review Canada-Chinese relationships. If Trudeau says no to the committee, a Conservative spokesperson said it proves the Liberals do not want their actions in the case investigated because it has been bungled.
"If the Liberal government opposes this modest proposal, it is a recognition they simply want to avoid scrutiny of their handling of this diplomatic crisis over the last year," said Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole via a news conference video.
Along with the arrests of the two Canadians the Chinese took other putative action by banning the importation of Canadian canola, a move that hurt farmers because China is their largest customer. Pork was also banned for a time.
With an aim to restore more cordial relations, Canada appointed a new Chinese-friendly ambassador in September.