Michael Spavor trial: China court sentences Canadian to 11 years for spying


Justin Trudeau has condemned as “absolutely unacceptable and unjust” China’s jailing of Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor for 11 years on charges of spying.

Canada’s prime minister said: “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.”

The verdict, delivered by a court in Dandong on Wednesday morning, comes as Beijing steps up pressure ahead of a Canadian court ruling on whether to hand over Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to face US criminal charges.

Spavor’s arrest in 2018 came just days after Meng’s arrest in Canada in connection with possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran, drawing accusations by critics of “hostage diplomacy”.

Spavor, and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, have spent 975 days in detention, and were tried separately in secret earlier this year. 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, the court in Dandong announced Spavor had been found guilty of spying and illegally providing state secrets to other countries. 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.

Canadian ambassador Dominic Barton said he was disappointed with the long sentence. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this [decision] which was rendered without due process or transparency.”

Barton said he was able to have a consular visit with Spavor, who thanked his supporters and said he was in good spirits but wanted to get home.

The court had also ordered Spavor be deported but it was not clear when this would occur. Barton told the media they had interpreted the judgment to mean deportation after the sentence, but “hopefully there is a way for him to get home a little earlier”.

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.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs, said there was precedent in a similar 2014 case, 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. They were released and deported in 2017 soon after Su cut a deal in the US.

“[Spavor’s case] may be a signal that the Chinese are willing to deport him at whatever time the Canadian government creates the right conditions for him to leave – in other words Meng being released to return to China,” she said.

Spavor has two weeks 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 that verdict, which it labelled 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, in a show of solidarity with Canada.

Beijing denies its prosecution of Schellenberg, Spavor and Kovrig are retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Trudeau, has previously said the charges against Spavor and Kovrig were “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 also pointed to the Garratt case, noting 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.