By Barry Ellsworth
TRENTON, Canada (AA) - The detention of two Canadians by China reached one year Tuesday and China used the occasion to announce 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,” China 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 the pair had no legal representation.
“Our heart goes out to them,” David Lametti said. “I know they’ve had consular access, but it troubles me that they haven’t had any access to legal counsel.”
Lametti also said: “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 François-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.
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.
Dominic Barton represented the consulting firm of Mckinsey and Company as the Asia chairman in Shanghai from 2004 to 2009. He is also a trusted economic advisor to the Trudeau government.
But contentious events kept getting in the way of any hopes Barton’s appointment might improve relations.
Two Canadian senators announced this week they would introduce a motion to condemn China’s mistreatment of the Muslim Uighurs, where it is estimated that about 1 million are in “re-education camps.” In reality, credible reports say the Uighurs are suffering a multitude of abuses at the hands of their Chinese guards.
The motion also includes sanctions against China for human rights abuses of Hong Kong protesters.
Senator Thanh Hai Ngo said the motion was, “as the result of the violation of human rights, and of the principle of fundamental justice and the rule of law, relating to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, and to the treatment of minority Muslims in China.”
The Chinese ambassador to Canada warned last week that Beijing would institute “very firm countermeasures” if the sanctions were adopted.
Meanwhile, Champagne’s “arbitrarily” detained statement raised the Chinese ire, and the Chinese Embassy issued a statement calling the remarks “irresponsible.”
“China is a country ruled by law,” the statement read. “The Chinese judicial departments handle cases strictly in accordance with the law to protect the legitimate rights of the Canadian citizens mentioned above.
“China urges Canada to earnestly respect the spirit of the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks.
There is no date mentioned for the trials of the two Michaels.