China charges Canadians with spying, 18 months after arrest

A demonstator holds up photos of detained Canadians Michael Spavor (left) and Michael Kovrig outside a May 2019 court appearance for Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver

China has formally charged two Canadians with spying, officials said Friday, more than 18 months after they were arrested in a spat between Beijing and Ottawa.

The pair were detained shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on a US warrant, in what is widely believed to have been a retaliatory move from China.

The Supreme People's Procuratorate said Friday it has begun the prosecution of ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, who were "suspected of foreign espionage" and "providing state secrets".

The move comes just weeks after a key ruling in the Meng case where a Canadian judge ruled that proceedings to extradite her to the United States will go ahead.

The United States wants Meng extradited to face trial on charges related to the Chinese telecom equipment maker's alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran.

Diplomatic relations between Canada and China have hit rock bottom over the arrests, damaging trade between the countries.

Monthly consular visits for Kovrig and Spavor had been suspended since the coronavirus outbreak started in China, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in April, amid concerns for their deteriorating health.

But China's foreign ministry has insisted the pair are in good health, and that their detention facility was "in a region that is not particularly affected by COVID-19".

However, people familiar with the matter have told AFP the two have endured hours of interrogation and in the first six months of detention were forced to sleep with the lights on.

Canadians Michael Spavor (L) and Michael Kovrig were detained shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada, in what is widely seen as retaliation