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China allows detained Canadian ex-diplomat to call sick father

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Beijing (AFP)

China has allowed a former Canadian diplomat detained for allegedly gathering state secrets to speak on the phone to his ill father, the foreign ministry said Monday.

Michael Kovrig has been languishing in China's opaque legal system since he was apprehended in December 2018, along with Canadian businessman Michael Spavor, who faces similar accusations.

Their detention has been widely seen as retribution by Beijing for Canada's arrest days earlier of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition request.

Beijing said it had allowed the phone call "after understanding the serious illness of Kovrig's father".

"The Chinese departments handling the case made special arrangements within the scope allowed by Chinese law, and agreed to allow Kovrig to speak on the phone with his father," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing.

Geng added that during the coronavirus outbreak which emerged in China late last year, authorities have taken "relevant measures to realistically protect the health and safety of people in custody including Kovrig and Spavor".

Former Canadian ambassador to Beijing Guy Saint-Jacques told AFP that it was "not in the habit of Chinese authorities" to allow these kinds of calls, and said the news was "a little encouraging".

"I don't think that his chances of getting out have increased because of this, but it shows a little bit of goodwill on the part of Chinese authorities," he said.

However, he warned that if Meng's extradition is to go ahead then he expects the Chinese authorities to formally charge the two Canadians, which would complicate efforts to secure their release.

Canada's foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne expressed his country's "deep concern" over the condition of the two men's detention in talks with his Chinese counterpart late last year.

Beijing has insisted the men are being held in "good" conditions, but 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.

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