Canadian jailed in China accused of taking military photos

Chinese state media have accused the jailed Canadian Michael Spavor of supplying photographs of military equipment to Michael Kovrig in repeated acts of espionage, offering rare details of the allegations against the two men.

The two men were arrested in December 2018, just days after Canadian officials arrested the Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou. Last month Spavor, who lived in China and arranged tours to North Korea, 曾是 sentenced to 11 年 in prison and deportation from China. Kovrig, a former diplomat turned analyst for the International Crisis Group, was also tried in secret in March. Kovrig is yet to have his verdict or sentence announced.

On Thursday China’s state-backed tabloid the Global Times accused Spavor of being a “key informant” for Kovrig, who is accused – but not yet convicted – of espionage. Citing an anonymous source it said Spavor took photographs and videos of military equipment, which it deemed “second-tier state secrets” and “illegally provided some of those photos to people outside China” and to Kovrig.

The Global Times 报告 claimed Kovrig entered China in 2017 和 2018 “under the guise of a businessman and false pretext of commerce” to gather large amounts of undisclosed intelligence and “second tier state secrets” relating to China’s national security, and wrote reports.

Both men maintain their innocence of the charges, but China’s justice system is widely criticised for lacking transparency and judicial fairness, and reports conviction rates of around 99.9%.

The anonymous claims in the Global Times are some of the only details of the espionage accusations against the men, whose cases have been shrouded in secrecy, from their detention conditions through to the closed-door trials and lack of sentencing documents.

The report was first published in the Global Times’s English-language arm, and was later followed by Chinese-language outlets. Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said the English-only report gave the sense it had been written for foreign – particularly Canadian – consumption, to “buttress the idea that there was an actual credible legal basis to this case”.

“Let’s be clear,“ 她说, “even if the so-called evidence offered in this article was accurate, the facts remain that the violations in both cases regarding the right to a fair trial are shocking and egregious.”

Canada and other governments have labelled the long-running cases against the men as arbitrary detention, lacking in transparency and not meeting international standards of justice. The arrests have been called “hostage diplomacy” in retaliation for the arrest of Meng, the chief financial officer of the tech giant Huawei, just days earlier.

Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was accused of breaching US sanctions against Iran during business dealings and was arrested in Canada on behalf of US authorities. China denies the arrest of Spavor and Kovrig, and the increased sentence of their fellow Canadian Robert Schellenberg, were in retaliation but also repeatedly links their freedom to Meng’s case.

The Global Times article also segued from the Spavor claims to discussion of Meng’s case, saying China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, had spoken to her over the phone “to express his sympathy and denounce the misdeeds of the Canadian government”.

Richardson said the inclusion was “telling”, and signalled the “quid pro quo” demands inherent in the cases.

“It shows it’s about the politics, not about the law,“ 她说.

Peter Dahlin, the director of the NGO Safeguard Defenders, said it was notable that in two years the security services had apparently only built a vague case against Spavor, with allegations which “could be used against most foreigners that have stayed in China for any long period”.

Dahlin said the Global Times article also revealed Chinese authorities were more focused on Kovrig than Spavor.

“The fact that the article directly mentions Kovrig, and his supposedly ‘senior position’ in their intelligence work is, 当然, intended to signal that, unless things change, Kovrig can expect a heavier sentence than Spavor,“ 他说.

“As such, the article is mostly a political statement aimed at the Canadian government. It is also a pretty clear act of desperation from the CCP, which is running out of tools with which to pressure Canada.”