OTTAWA — The wife of a Canadian caught in the geopolitical struggle between the U.S. and China says he was relieved to discover he has not been forgotten after months of hearing nothing from the outside world in his Chinese jail cell.
On Thursday, Michael Kovrig will mark two years behind bars in China under difficult conditions. The former diplomat and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor were both detained in December 2018 in an apparent retaliation for the arrest, days earlier, of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Vina Nadjibulla said as the two-year milestone approaches, the ordeal is taking a toll on her husband, and that 2020 has been particularly harsh — including a “very difficult” stretch from March to October when Kovrig heard nothing from the outside.
Nadjibulla is hoping the incoming Biden administration — and the new multilateral approach to China expected to come with it — will help the cases of Kovrig and Spavor. She added, however, that it’s early days and difficult to predict what will happen once President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
“Like many Canadians, I am hopeful that change will result in improvements on a variety of international relations issues and certainly issues between Canada and the U.S., and the U.S. and China,” she said in an interview. “The overall context will definitely change and may improve. And I, like many Canadians, am hopeful that could spell out good news for Michael’s freedom.”
Nadjibulla said that due to the pandemic, Kovrig’s consular visits were canceled in January and only resumed in October. The only outside communication he had during that period was a brief phone call in March to speak with his ailing father.
“That was a profound change to be able to have that contact again and to be able to get some letters, get some books and have a slight understanding of what’s happening in the world,” she said of virtual consular visits in October and November. “And to also get news of the fact he is not forgotten, that many, many people — the Canadian government, other governments around the world and colleagues — are working to resolve this situation and to hopefully secure his freedom. That gives him a sense of not being alone and keeps hope alive for him.”
Meng’s arrest infuriated Beijing, which labeled it a political move by Washington assisted by Ottawa. The Trudeau government has rallied allies, including the U.S., to pressure China into releasing Kovrig and Spavor, who face serious accusations of endangering national security.
Her case, based on fraud charges connected to an alleged violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran, has thrust middle-power Canada into the ring with the two superpowers. Meng is fighting extradition in Canadian courts and, if the case proceeds, it’s expected to take years.
Last week, a report from The Wall Street Journal — later confirmed by POLITICO — said Meng has been negotiating a possible deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that would allow her to return to China.
Asked about the report, Nadjibulla replied that her focus remains on securing Kovrig’s freedom.
Canada-China diplomatic relations rapidly eroded after Meng’s arrest and resulted in trade actions by Beijing against some Canadian exports.
At the human level, the impact has been profound.
“It’s difficult to imagine that level of confinement, of isolation,” said Nadjibulla, who met Kovrig in 2001 when they were both studying at Columbia University. “It’s been challenging and he copes by doing exercises while in detention. He continues to read books — that’s what essentially allows him to get through the days, as he says, with some level of grace and dignity.”
She said in the letters he’s written to family from detention, he’s mentioned books that have helped him cope. He told them about “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a book that taught him about getting stronger from traumatic experiences rather than just surviving them.
Since he was arrested, Kovrig endured at least one six-month run of solitary confinement and at one point wrote in a letter to family how he hadn’t seen a tree for the entire time of his detention. Nadjibulla has recalled how he’s coped by sticking to a daily schedule of walking in circles around his cell, push-ups, meditation and singing “as a way to keep the mind from going into very, very dark places.”
He has also had a single phone call. In March, on humanitarian grounds, he was able to speak with his father for 16 minutes and 47 seconds.
Nadjibulla said Kovrig, who was a Canadian diplomat in Beijing before taking a leave of absence to work in the region as an adviser for the International Crisis Group, has remained healthy and positive in mind and spirit.
In his latest letters, she said he asks about everyone’s health back home, especially his father’s. “The messages are all about reassurance, about giving each other strength,” she said.
Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, told a special parliamentary committee late Tuesday that both Kovrig and Spavor were very healthy mentally and physically when he saw them.
“They’re very, very strong — it’s remarkable,” said Barton, who noted privacy legislation prevents him from providing details. “They are robust, that’s what I find inspiring. You would be very impressed by seeing both of them.”
Barton said Canadian officials were “very frustrated” the consular visits were suspended. Chinese authorities blocked access — even by video link — out of fear of the coronavirus, he said. Canadian officials, he said, pressed authorities for the right for access.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters Monday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has raised the cases of Kovrig and Spavor with Biden.
“We will continue to engage,” Champagne said when asked if he thought Biden’s win might have an impact on Kovrig and Spavor’s situations. “More than ever, this administration and the next administration realize that the way to face China when it comes to, for example, coercive diplomacy, is to work together.”
The case of the “two Michaels,” which has dragged for two years, has angered many Canadians and put political pressure on the Trudeau government.
Nadjibulla said the family wishes to extend a “word of profound gratitude to Canadians.”
“It has meant a great deal for us and for Michael to know that Canadians are behind him, that he’s not forgotten and that we all wish for his immediate release and return home.”