Canadian businessman Michael Spavor was put on trial in China on Friday in closed-door proceedings that lasted two hours, in a case widely criticized by Western officials as a violation of international law and a blatant display of hostage diplomacy.
Diplomats from Canada and more than half a dozen other countries, including the United States, Britain and Australia, as well as journalists were barred from the proceedings at a court in the northern Chinese city of Dandong. Canadian officials said their denial of entry breaches the country’s consular agreement with China and slammed a “lack of transparency” in the cases.
No verdict was released, according to his family’s lawyer.
The plight of “the two Michaels” has severely strained China’s relationships with both Canada and the United States.
Spavor, who lived near China’s border with North Korea and arranged cultural exchanges, was detained in 2018 along with former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, days after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the behest of U.S. officials seeking her extradition on fraud charges related to the company’s dealings in Iran. Kovrig is scheduled to go on trial in Beijing on Monday.
Both men have been accused of spying, charges that Canadian officials and legal advocates say are baseless and an attempt to push Ottawa to release Meng, whose extradition case is underway in Canada.
“Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around the court proceedings,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Friday. “Our top priority remains securing their release.”
In a statement released earlier in the day, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa described charges of “hostage diplomacy” as “fact-distorting,” “hypocritical” and “arrogant,” saying it is Meng who is “arbitrarily detained.”
“China is playing hardball. The main message is: If you want to help the two Canadians, you know what you have to do — get Mrs. Meng back to China,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China.
The trial Friday took place after a rocky start to talks between top U.S. and Chinese officials in Anchorage, marked by testy exchanges and barbs from both sides. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing of waging cyber attacks against the United States, and a senior U.S. official accused Chinese counterparts of “grandstanding.” Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, criticized human rights problems in the United States, citing Black Lives Matter protests.
After the first session of talks, which are to last two days, both sides accused each other of breaching protocol. Chinese diplomats said their U.S. counterparts had taken too long in opening remarks, criticizing the officials as “unreasonable and inhospitable.”
Chinese propaganda organs seized on a remark by Yang, who told the United States it had no place talking down to China. The phrase “Chinese people are not buying this,” posted by the official People’s Daily, trended on the microblog site Weibo, with more than 110 million views.
Chinese media also pointed out oversights in U.S. planning, including that shared meals for both delegations had not been arranged. A video posted by a social media account affiliated with state-run CCTV appeared to show Yang saying that he ate instant noodles for lunch.
Experts in Chinese law and politics say the cases of Spavor and Kovrig depend on how the Alaska talks and relations between Beijing and the Biden administration progress.
The accusations against both men are vague and it is not clear if they were notified 10 days ahead of the trial of the specifics of the charges, as is required under Chinese law. China’s highly politicized courts render a conviction in nearly 100 percent of cases.
“The continued unjust and arbitrary detention depriving them of their liberty is both unfair, disproportionate and unreasonable, especially given the lack of transparency and lack of substantial access to defense counsel,” said James Zimmerman, a lawyer assisting the Spavor family. He said Spavor has had very limited access to, and interaction with, his Chinese lawyer.
Spavor’s family, which has stayed out of the media spotlight for most of the past two years, released a statement calling for his release.
“Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman who has done extraordinary things to build constructive ties between Canada, China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” said Paul Spavor, Michael’s brother, using North Korea’s formal name. “He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people.”
Trudeau — caught in the middle of a battle between two superpowers — has raised Kovrig and Spavor’s cases with President Joe Biden. The president promised to work with Canada to secure their release, but did not offer specifics on how he might do so.
Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said that the cases have “major symbolic significance” and that other countries will be watching closely.
“You have substantive interests at stake, which is human life,” she said. “But beyond that … it’s a major test case for whether Western countries can effectively come together to rise to the China challenge.”
Legal analysts said that even after conviction, there is a possibility that a deal could be struck allowing Spavor and Kovrig to leave on the basis of medical parole or other extenuating circumstances.
Meng is out on bail at the larger of her two mansions in Vancouver. Spavor and Kovrig have been cut off from the world for most of their more than two-year detention and allowed only limited consular access. In October, Canadian officials said they made contact with the two men for the first time since January 2020.
Kovrig has had two phone calls with his family since he was detained, while Spavor has had one. Ahead of his trial, Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, said she had a message for him.
“I would ask for him to remain strong, to continue to be as incredibly resilient and brave as he has been,” she said. “To know we’re doing everything possible to bring him home.”
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The Washington Post’s Amanda Coletta in Toronto and Eva Dou and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.