June 20: Chinese prosecutors have charged two detained Canadians with espionage, escalating a diplomatic row that has pitted China and the tech company Huawei on one side and Canada and the US on the other.

The charges come more than 18 months after Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were detained in late 2018, days after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver on a US warrant, The Guardian reported.

On Friday, the prosecutor general’s office said it had begun prosecuting Kovrig on charges of spying on state secrets and intelligence. Spavor faced charges of “suspected spying secrets and illegally providing them to overseas forces”, said China’s highest procuratorial body.

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said he was “very disappointed” and would keep pressing China to release the two men. Trudeau said Chinese authorities had “directly linked the case of the two Michaels to the judicial proceedings against Miss Meng”. He called this “extremely disappointing because, for us, there obviously are no links, except in politics”.

Beijing defended the decision to move forward with the charges against Kovrig and Spavor. “The criminal facts are clear and the evidence is verified and sufficient,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said.

In December, the ministry said it had ended an investigation into the two men, and the case had been turned over to prosecutors. Kovrig’s case is being handled by prosecutors in Beijing, and Spavor’s in the north-eastern province of Liaoning.

Last month, Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, lost a legal challenge to extradition proceeding brought by the US, where she faces bank fraud charges. She continues to be under house arrest in Vancouver.

Meng recently raised a new argument in a Canadian court in an attempt to avoid extradition, court documents released on Monday showed.

Kovrig and Spavor are likely to face harsh punishments under a Chinese court system whose conviction rate is as high as 99%. Asked whether the two would face long prison sentences or possibly the death penalty, Zhao declined to answer a “hypothetical question”.

Family and advocates for the two men have said they both face inhumane conditions. According to Trudeau, monthly consular visits to Kovrig and Spavor had been suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak.

China’s foreign ministry has insisted that Kovrig and Spavor are in good health, and that their detention facility is “in a region that is not particularly affected by Covid-19”.

The Chinese government has repeatedly rejected suggestions any of its criminal proceedings against foreigners are politically motivated.

Shortly after the charges were laid against the men, the Chinese state news site the Global Times warned against linking their cases to that of Meng’s, saying she was a “victim of conspiracy against China, whereas the two Canadians were charged with solid evidence”.

On Friday Trudeau said his government would continue “to put pressure on the Chinese government to cease the arbitrary detention of these two Canadian citizens who are being held for no other reason than the Chinese government is disappointed with the independent proceedings of the Canadian judiciary,” he said.

Diplomatic relations between Canada and China have hit rock bottom over the arrests, damaging trade between the countries. the Chinese embassy in Ottawa accused the US of trying “to bring down Huawei”. China has also blocked billions of dollars’ worth of Canadian agricultural exports.


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