Chinese court sentences Canadian Michael Spavor to 11 years for spying

Michael Spavor, pictured in 2014, was accused of activities that “endanger China's security”.
Michael Spavor, pictured in 2014, was accused of activities that “endanger China's security”. © AFP/File

A Chinese court convicted Canadian businessman Michael Spavor of espionage on Wednesday and sentenced him to 11 years in prison, in a case widely condemned as politically motivated by a diplomatic spat between Beijing and Ottawa over Canada’s arrest of a senior Huawei executive on a US extradition request.


His sentencing comes as lawyers in Canada representing the chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei make a final push to convince a court there not to extradite her to the United States.

The Dandong Intermediate Court also said 50,000 yuan of Spavor’s personal assets will be confiscated and he will be deported, although it was not clear when. Beijing-based lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters that deportation generally takes place after the person has finished serving the sentence but may happen earlier for special cases.

China detained Spavor in December 2018, days after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport on a warrant from the United States.

He was charged with espionage in June 2019. The Dandong court concluded a one-day trial in March and waited until Wednesday to announce the verdict.

Spavor’s family said in March the charges against him are vague and have not been made public, and that he has had “very limited access and interaction with his retained Chinese defence counsel”.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the jailing of Spavor as "unacceptable and unjust" on Wednesday.

"China's conviction and sentencing of Michael Spavor is absolutely unacceptable and unjust," Trudeau said in a statement after the sentencing.

"The verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process, and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law," Trudeau also said.

Canadian ambassador to China Dominic Barton, who was present in the courtroom, linked the verdict to Meng's ongoing hearings in Vancouver.

"I don't take it as a coincidence that we have heard the verdicts of these two cases while that trial is going on," Barton told reporters.

The verdict came a day after a Chinese court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence for another Canadian citizen, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, for drug smuggling. Schellenberg was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison in late 2018, but that was changed to the death penalty just months later after a deepening diplomatic rift exploded between Ottawa and Beijing.

Separately, another Canadian, former diplomat Michael Kovrig, was also detained in China in late 2018 days after Meng’s arrest and charged with espionage. His trial concluded in March with the verdict to be announced at an unspecified date.

France, US, EU slam verdict

France on Wednesday joined the US and the EU in expressing dismay over the verdict.

"France firmly condemns the arbitrary nature of these verdicts," the foreign ministry said in a statement, referring also to Tuesday’s upholding of the death sentence for Schellenberg.

"We reaffirm our full solidarity with the Canadian authorities" over these cases and that of former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who has been held for some two-and-a-half years on spying charges, it added.

The US demanded the "immediate and unconditional" release of Spavor and Kovrig. 

"The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. "People should never be used as bargaining chips." 

The EU also hit out at the verdict, accusing China in a statement of failing to guarantee Spavor a "fair trial and due process".

A businessman working to ‘build constructive ties’

Spavor and Kovrig – a former diplomat – were formally charged with spying in June last year, and their separate trials took place in March.

The pair have had almost no contact with the outside world since their detention.

Virtual consular visits resumed in October after a nine-month hiatus, which authorities said was due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Spavor's family has maintained he is innocent of the accusations against him, saying he had done much as a businessman to "build constructive ties" between Canada, China and North Korea.

Spavor organised cultural visits to Pyongyang, where he met Kim Jong-Un and helped foster the unlikely friendship between the North Korean leader and former NBA star Dennis Rodman.

Before his detention, he was mainly based in Dandong, a Chinese city bordering North Korea.

China has rejected the suggestion that the cases of the Canadians in China are linked to Meng’s case in Canada, though Beijing has warned of unspecified consequences unless Meng was released.

Meng was charged with misleading HSBC Holdings PLC about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran, potentially causing the bank to violate US economic sanctions against Tehran.

Meng, who has said she is innocent, has been fighting her extradition from under house arrest in Vancouver.

Her extradition hearings in Canada are currently in their last few weeks ahead of a ruling from the judge, expected sometime in the next few months, before Canada’s justice minister makes a final decision on whether to extradite her.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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