OTTAWA — The wife of a Canadian who has been detained in China for more than 560 days is making her first public pleas for her husband’s release and sharing, in her husband’s own words, what life’s been like for him behind bars.
Vina Nadjibulla and Michael Kovrig’s family are also applying new pressure on the Canadian government to halt the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive whose arrest in December 2018 on U.S. charges infuriated Beijing.
Days later, Kovrig, a diplomat on leave, and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor, a businessperson, were arrested in China. Last week, Chinese authorities formally charged the men with spying. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denounced the moves as retaliation for the prosecution of Meng, the chief financial officer for the Chinese telecom giant.
“He has been detained for 561 days. It’s arbitrary, prolonged and extremely painful,” Nadjibulla told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday. “Michael is an innocent Canadian who for no fault of his own has been detained in China under extreme, harsh conditions. … Michael is a pawn in a broader political struggle, he’s paying a price. It is unjust, it is unfair and his detention has to come to an end.”
Meng’s case — based on fraud charges connected to her alleged violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran — has thrown Canada into a bigger fight between two superpowers: the U.S. and China. It’s damaged diplomatic relations between Canada and China and led to trade actions by Beijing against Canadian exports.
And Kovrig and Spavor are caught in the middle.
The matter has been further complicated by President Donald Trump’s public statements days after Meng’s arrest. During a December 2018 interview, Trump said he would be willing to intervene in her case if it would help the U.S. land a trade deal with China or serve other American national security interests.
Meng’s defense team, which has been fighting her extradition in a Vancouver courtroom, is expected to seize on Trump’s remarks as part of its argument that Meng’s arrest was motivated by politics.
The fear, however, for Kovrig’s loved ones is that if it isn’t stopped, the courtroom battle over Meng’s extradition could take several years — or longer.
“Michael is in the fight for his life — this is extremely serious and he does not have years,” said Nadjibulla, a geopolitics expert like Kovrig.
She shared passages from what she described as “heartbreaking” letters the family has received from Kovrig, including one he wrote after he emerged from six months of solitary confinement.
“Lastly, if there’s one faint silver lining to this Hell, it’s this: trauma carved caverns of psychological pain through my mind,” Kovrig wrote. “As I strive to heal and recover, I find myself filling those gulfs with a love for you and for life that is vast, deep and more profound and comforting than what I’ve ever experienced before. So, as I sit here, tinnitus ringing in the silence, as I walk in circles, pollution clogging my nose, come sit with me and walk with me in spirit. Help me feel less isolated. Let me share the love I have for you, and we’ll get through this together.”
Nadjibulla, who rejects the Chinese accusations of espionage against Kovrig as “completely groundless,” had been working quietly behind the scenes for his release until she went public Monday with her first media interviews.
With support from high-profile Canadian legal experts, she forwarded a legal opinion this week to David Lametti, the federal justice minister and attorney general.
The 10-page document, prepared by prominent lawyer Brian Greenspan, argues to Lametti that he has the legal authority to use his discretion to stop the extradition process at any time if he decides it’s in Canada’s national interest.
Greenspan writes that releasing Meng is permitted under its extradition treaty with the U.S. — and that any fallout with its neighbor would be purely political.
“The United States may complain that Canada has breached the extradition treaty if it refuses to extradite Ms. Meng,” he argues. “However, that complaint would only be of a political nature as the United States would be well aware of the provisions of the Extradition Act which empower the Minister of Justice of Canada to act in Canada’s national interest in the application of the Treaty.”
Greenspan also said the case against Meng is “both weak and speculative.”
Nadjibulla’s effort to present the Trudeau government with another legal option was backed by Allan Rock, who was Canada’s justice minister and attorney general from 1993 to 1997, and Louise Arbour, who was chief prosecutor for U.N. war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda before being appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Asked for comment on Greenspan’s legal opinion, a spokesperson for Lametti said Tuesday that Canada protects individual rights and ensures due process before the courts, while honoring international treaty obligations.
“We are well aware of the laws and processes governing this important regime,” Rachel Rappaport, Lametti’s spokesperson, said in an email. “As this case remains before the courts, and the Minister of Justice has a direct role in the extradition process, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”
Late Tuesday, Justice Department official Ian McLeod followed up with an email stating that the government recognizes the significant personal and emotional toll the detentions have had on Kovrig, Spavor and their families.
Kovrig and Spavor have had little contact with their families since their arrests. Monthly consular visits were suspended in January because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nadjibulla has exchanged letters with Kovrig during his time behind bars, though she last received one in March. She said the conditions he’s described would be very hard for most in Canada or the U.S. to imagine — including six months in solitary confinement.
“In one of his letters, he mentioned that he hasn’t seen a tree for the entire time of his detention,” said Nadjibulla, who added he’s tried to cope by sticking to a daily schedule of walking in circles around his cell, push-ups and meditation.
Nadjibulla said Kovrig, who was a Canadian diplomat in Beijing before taking a leave of absence to continue working in the region as an adviser for the International Crisis Group, has also spent time singing, knowing it’s a technique used by people in solitary “as a way to keep the mind from going into very, very dark places.” He’s had limited access to books, been given little time to write letters and been forbidden to keep messages sent to him from family.
She has been comforted he’s been able to weave his personality, sense of humor, love for poetry and lyrics into his letters.
Since his arrest, Kovrig has been granted a single phone call in March on humanitarian grounds to speak with his ailing father. The call, which included Nadjibulla, Kovrig’s sister and his father, lasted 16 minutes and 47 seconds.
“It was allotted for a 15-minute call, but it lasted a little bit longer because it was just so heartbreaking to say goodbye to him after having not heard his voice for 460 days,” she said. “It was a profoundly moving and powerful experience for all of us. It was so good to hear that he was still Michael. In his voice, we could still hear that he was Michael, that his character, his mental sharpness, his humor were all intact.”
Nadjibulla, who met Kovrig in 2001 when they were both studying at Columbia University, said she’s grateful for the work of the Trudeau government to try to secure her husband’s release.
“Having said all of that, it is Day 561 and Michael still remains in jail,” she said. “There is now a need to double our efforts, to bring a greater sense of urgency because this situation is dire and this kind of prolonged, painful detention really is psychologically, incredibly difficult.”
On Monday, Trudeau said China has “made a direct link” between its detention of Kovrig and Spavor and Canada’s arrest of Meng.
“It has been obvious from the beginning that this was a political decision made by the Chinese government and we deplore it and have from the very beginning,” Trudeau said.
He said the government is using a wide range of “public and private pressures” to ensure that everything is being done to get Kovrig and Spavor home. Trudeau has insisted Canada “will not and must not and cannot interfere in the independence of our judiciary in this country.”
Earlier in the day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the men’s release and for Canada to get immediate consular access to the Canadians.
A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry rejected the assertion Monday that the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor were arbitrary.
Last month, the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa slammed a decision by a British Columbia court that prevented Meng’s release, calling her case “a grave political incident” and warned Canada “not to go further down the wrong path.”
On Tuesday, the Meng case was back before the British Columbia Supreme Court, where a judge approved a schedule that will see document disclosures in July and August, CBC News reported. The dates will be followed by a three-week hearing next February to explore allegations that her rights were violated.