OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday he expects the cases of two Canadians “arbitrarily” detained in China to be on the agenda of high-level U.S.-China talks this week in Alaska.
Trudeau slammed China for its secret, one-day trial earlier in the day of Michael Spavor, whose hearing was off-limits to Canadian officials and reportedly wrapped up in two hours without a verdict.
The proceedings will be followed by a trial Monday for Michael Kovrig who, like Spavor, was detained days after the December 2018 arrest of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada on a U.S. extradition warrant.
“Let me be very clear: Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa before later referencing the U.S.-China talks. “I am very confident that this is an issue that will be raised at that summit.”
The trial dates were announced on the eve of the U.S.-China summit, a development that bolstered the belief of many that the two Canadians are pawns in a larger geopolitical power struggle.
Canada’s global calls for help: Trudeau has sought international support to press Beijing for the release of the “two Michaels.”
On Friday, he said he knows the U.S. takes their cases seriously from the direct conversations he’s had with President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And Biden pledged last month to work with Canada until the men were returned.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” he said at the close of a bilateral meeting with Trudeau on Feb. 23.
The Anchorage, Alaska, summit, the first high-level meeting under the Biden administration, started Thursday and continues Friday.
In a statement Thursday evening, U.S. chargé d’affaires Katherine Brucker said the United States was deeply alarmed by developments in the cases of the two Michaels. “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release and continue to condemn the lack of minimum procedural protections during their two-year arbitrary detention.”
More on the ‘two Michaels’: The fates of Spavor and Kovrig have become a top foreign policy challenge for Trudeau and his Liberal government.
The men, who potentially face life sentences on charges of espionage, were arrested in what’s widely viewed as a retaliation by Beijing, which was angered by Meng’s arrest.
Global Affairs Canada noted in a statement Thursday that its official requests to attend Spavor’s trial this week were denied.
“We were not present in the courtroom so we have no idea what transpired,” Jim Nickel, Canada’s charge d’affaires in China, told reporters Friday outside the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court, where Spavor’s trial was held.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian envoy to Beijing, said the timing of the trial was not accidental. “It is to put pressure on the USA [and Canada].”
Diplomatic freeze: China charged Spavor and Kovrig with spying but has yet to produce evidence to back up the accusations. Meng’s case is based on fraud charges connected to her alleged violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.
China insists the cases against the Canadians are not connected to Meng’s. Trudeau has made it clear that nothing will convince him otherwise.
“It is obvious that the two Michaels were arrested on trumped-up national security charges days after we fulfilled our extradition treaty responsibilities towards our ally, the United States,” Trudeau said on March 3.
China responds: Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador to Canada, said in a statement this week that Meng is the one who has been “arbitrarily detained for over two years despite the fact that she hasn’t violated any Canadian law.”
“Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested and prosecuted in accordance with law for suspected crimes undermining China’s national security,” Cong said. “On the one hand, the Canadian side claims that it upholds the rule of law, but on the other hand, it makes irresponsible remarks with regards to China’s handling relevant cases in accordance with law. How hypocritical and arrogant!”
The U.S. vs. China: At the start of the Alaska summit Thursday, National Security adviser Jake Sullivan and Blinken exchanged heated words with top Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi.
“We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition,” Sullivan said at the start, according to Reuters. “We will always stand up for our principles, for our people and for our friends.”
When the U.S. advised China that it planned to address human rights and Chinese actions in Xinjiang, Yang lectured the officials on minding their own affairs.
In Vancouver: An extradition hearing for Meng continues Friday with final arguments in the case scheduled for mid-May. Meng has denied any wrongdoing.
What’s ahead: In a previous interview with POLITICO about the Spavor and Kovrig cases, Saint-Jacques cautioned that there is no fair trial in China.
“You are found guilty 99.9 percent of the time,” he said. “We know that the minimum sentence will be 10 years and it could be up to a life sentence. We have to brace ourselves for years of difficult relations and I think it’s time for the Canadian government to completely reassess its engagement strategy with China, because so far it has been one of appeasement and it has done nothing.”