The second of two Canadians detained in China for more than two years, Michael Kovrig, has gone on trial on espionage charges, days after the United States raised its concerns over the cases during tense US-China talks in Alaska.
One senior Canadian diplomat said he had been denied access to the court in Beijing on Monday, echoing the scenes on Friday, when Michael Spavor was tried in secret in a court process that lasted only a few hours.
“We’ve requested access to Michael Kovrig’s hearing repeatedly but that access is being denied” over national security reasons, Jim Nickel, charge d’affaires of the Canadian embassy in China, told reporters outside the Beijing court after the trial began. “Now we see that the court process itself is not transparent. We’re very troubled by this.”
In a show of solidarity, 28 diplomats from 26 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Netherlands and Czech Republic, turned up outside the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court on Monday, which was marked by a heavy police presence.
“President Biden and (Secretary of State Antony) Blinken have said that in dealing with the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the United States will treat these two individuals as if they were American citizens,” William Klein, charge d’affaires of the US embassy in China, told reporters as he stood beside Nickel.
China arrested Kovrig, a former diplomat, and fellow Canadian Spavor in December 2018, soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech company Huawei Technologies, on a US warrant.
Beijing insists the detentions are not linked to the arrest of Meng, who remains under house arrest in Vancouver as she fights extradition to the United States. The Canadian government has accused Beijing of “hostage diplomacy”.
On Friday, Spavor, a businessman, underwent trial behind closed doors in a court in the north-eastern city of Dandong, which said it will set a date later for a verdict.
Canadian and other diplomats were not allowed to attend Spavor’s trial on what China said were national security grounds, a lack of transparency that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “completely unacceptable.“
Observers have said the likely convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby they are released and sent back to Canada.
Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99%.
“Michael and Michael Spavor are innocent Canadians caught up in a bigger geopolitical dispute,” Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, told Reuters. “Their detention is profoundly unjust and our focus must remain on securing their freedom.”
Spavor’s trial took place as the US and China held high-level talks in Alaska that proved to be rancorous. The United States raised the issue during the talks, a senior Biden administration official said, including its concerns that diplomats were barred from the courtroom in Spavor’s trial.