A Canadian entrepreneur who was arrested in China on spying claims just days after the arrest in Canada of a Huawei executive, has been found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The verdict in the case of Michael Spavor, which was delivered on Wednesday morning, comes as Beijing steps up pressure ahead of a Canadian court ruling on whether to hand over a Chinese executive to face US criminal charges.
Spavor, and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, were detained in China in what critics labelled “hostage politics” after Meng Wanzhou’s 2018 arrest in connection with possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran.
They were tried separately in secret earlier this year, after spending more than 830 days in detention. In March China’s state media tabloid, the Global Times, said Spavor – who lived near the North Korean border and arranged cultural exchanges – was accused of supplying intelligence to Kovrig, a former diplomat turned analyst for the International Crisis Group. Canadian authorities have said the charges are baseless.
On Wednesday a court in Dandong announced Spavor had been found guilty of spying and illegally providing state secrets to other countries, according to reports. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail, confiscation of personal property, and fined 50,000 yuan ($7,715), according to a statement by the Liaoning Dandong intermediate people’s court. The court also said Spavor would be deported but it was not clear when this would occur.
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.
Spavor is entitled to appeal against the ruling, but China’s notoriously opaque justice system rarely grants appeals and routinely posts conviction rates of more than 99.9%.
Spavor’s family have maintained he was innocent of the accusations against him, saying he had done much as a businessman to “build constructive ties” between Canada, China and North Korea.
Separately on Tuesday, a court rejected the appeal of a third Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, whose prison term in a drug case was abruptly increased to death after the executive’s arrest. Canada’s foreign ministry condemned the verdict, which it labeled a “cruel and inhumane punishment”. The statement prompted a rebuke from China’s embassy in Canada that it had violated China’s judicial sovereignty.
All three cases are suspected to be linked to the ongoing extradition hearing in Canada, where Meng and her lawyers have made their case to a judge that her extradition should be tossed out. In the coming days, the Canadian government will argue that the extradition should proceed.
Western governments have accused China of engaging in “hostage diplomacy” by arresting citizens and linking their fates to bilateral disagreements or, in Canada’s case, legal action against Chinese nationals. Diplomats from dozens of countries gathered at Canada’s embassy in Beijing on Wednesday to hear the Spavor verdict.
Beijing denies its prosecution of Schellenberg, Spavor and Kovrig are retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has said the charges against the two Michaels are “trumped-up” and that Chinese officials were “very clear” the cases were connected.
Canada and other governments including Australia and the Philippines face growing pressure from China in disputes over human rights, coronavirus and territorial claims. Washington has warned Americans they face “a heightened risk of arbitrary detention” in China for reasons other than to enforce the law.
“It’s hard to know whether or not China actually believes that we have a legal system that is separate from government interference. I genuinely don’t know if they appreciate that reality,” said Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton university. “But the fact is, there’s no coincidence that these verdicts are happening this week.”
While Spavor’s sentencing has been condemned by Canadian officials and allies, it nonetheless represents movement in the case. “There is the thinnest of silver linings; as the legal processes march towards some kind of conclusion, we do move towards more of an endgame,” said Carvin.
She pointed to a prior diplomatic feud that began in 2014, in which Canadian couple Kevin and Julia Garratt were detained, charged and sentenced in China after Canada extradited Su Bin, a suspected spy, to the US. It wasn’t until the whole process was complete that China released the Garratt family.
“While there are elements of similarity in the cases, I do worry that China of 2015 isn’t the China of today. We’ve seen a far more aggressive foreign policy and security policy coming out of the country,” Carvin said.
That aggression – and a series of frosty meetings between US and Chinese officials – has dampened hopes that a deal between the two nations could be imminent.
At the same time, legal experts have previously said Meng’s case could take nearly a decade if she pursues appeals all the way to Canada’s supreme court.