Espionage trial starts for second Canadian detained in China

·2-min read
The detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have sent relations between Ottawa and Beijing to their lowest point in decades

The trial for Michael Kovrig, the Canadian detained more than two years ago in China on espionage charges, started in Beijing on Monday, with China-Canada relations in freefall.

The hearing comes days after the closed-door trial of another Canadian man, both detained in apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest on a US extradition warrant of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

On Monday police cordoned off an area outside the Beijing court as Canadian diplomats were turned away from entering the courtroom.

Kovrig, a former diplomat, was detained in 2018 and formally charged last June with spying at the same time as his compatriot, businessman Michael Spavor.

Jim Nickel, the charge d'affaires of the Canadian embassy in Beijing, told reporters that the hearing had started and that diplomats' "access has been denied."

"We're very troubled by the lack of access and lack of transparency in the legal process," he said.

A court official on the steps of the court told reporters no entry was allowed because the trial is a national security case.

Representatives of 26 countries had gathered outside the court on Monday, Nickel said, and were "lending their voice" for Kovrig's immediate release.

Canadian diplomats were also barred from entering Spavor's trial in the northern city of Dandong on Friday, which lasted less than three hours and ended without any verdict being announced.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted angrily to the closed-door trial, saying the two men's "arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings."

The cases have sent relations between Ottawa and Beijing to their lowest point in decades.

The court dates for the two Canadians come as an extradition hearing for Meng enters its final months.

Meng, whose father is Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, has been fighting extradition to the US on charges that she and the company violated US sanctions on Iran and other laws.

Canada's former ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, told AFP he expected Kovrig's trial to also be short and behind closed doors.

"China does not even try to make this look like a real trial as evidence is not shared with the defense and the judge does not even take the time to review it," he said ahead of the hearing.

"It just confirms that the process is pre-ordained by the Communist Party and this is a political case."

China's judicial system convicts most people who stand trial and the two men face up to life in prison if found guilty of "espionage" and "providing state secrets".

Beijing has insisted the detention of the two Canadians is lawful, while calling Meng's case "a purely political incident".

"The message to the USA is: if you want to help the Canadians, make sure that Meng is returned quickly to China," said Saint-Jacques.

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