January 21, 2020

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One year later, little progress to report

Editorial

Tuesday marked a most troublesome and galling milestone — one year since Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested and jailed without cause by Chinese authorities, in what was clearly an act of retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou under an extradition agreement with the United States.

Mr. Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who was working as an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Hong Kong, and Mr. Spavor, an entrepreneur who arranged travel to North Korea for tourists, athletes and artists, were arrested separately in China just days after Ms. Meng was detained at Vancouver International Airport while awaiting a connecting flight en route from Hong Kong to Mexico.

Michael Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat who was working as an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Hong Kong. (Associated Press files)

Michael Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat who was working as an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Hong Kong. (Associated Press files)

Ms. Meng, the chief financial officer of Chinese technology giant Huawei and daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested in connection with U.S. charges of bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy related to the company’s alleged violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran. While the issue of her extradition to the U.S. to face those charges remains under discussion, Ms. Meng has spent the past year under house arrest at a luxurious West Coast mansion, where she reportedly spends her days reading novels, receiving visitors, brushing up on oil-painting skills and essentially roaming the city at will until her nightly curfew.

For Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, the situation is decidedly less comfortable. After being arrested in December on trumped-up allegations of having endangered Chinese security, the men were formally charged in May with violating Chinese state secrets. They have been held in separate prisons, under conditions that have been described as appalling by individuals who have previously been jailed and subsequently released by Chinese authorities.

While Ms. Meng was released quickly, fitted with an ankle bracelet and allowed to return to her $13-million Vancouver home, "the two Michaels" have been confined to tiny cells in which bright lights are illuminated 24 hours per day, afforded very little privacy, denied contact with their families or lawyers and allowed only infrequent visits from Canadian consular officials.

China’s government continues to rail against the Huawei CFO’s unfair treatment, and has imposed random and unwarranted sanctions against Chinese-bound Canadian agricultural exports such as canola, wheat and soybeans.

On Tuesday, the South China Morning Post reported the cases of messrs. Kovrig and Spavor were finally being handed over to Chinese prosecutors and will be "reviewed and prosecuted in accordance with the law."

There is little reason, however, to expect an increase in the speed or clarity with which the cases are being handled.

Canada’s government says it considers the matters to be of utmost importance, but the manner in which events have unfolded during the past 12 months demonstrates the woeful inadequacy of this country’s ability to advocate for citizens unjustly detained abroad.

Michael Spavor is an entrepreneur who arranged travel to North Korea for tourists, athletes and artists. (Associated Press files)

Michael Spavor is an entrepreneur who arranged travel to North Korea for tourists, athletes and artists. (Associated Press files)

"These two Canadians are and will remain our absolute priority," Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Monday. "We will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and stand up for them as a government and as Canadians."

One full year later, it seems a bit silly for a government representative to utter "immediate" in describing Canada’s efforts to bring Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor home. But one hopes the commitment to securing their freedom truly is tireless, and that this uncomfortable anniversary will inspire those on the cases to consider new strategies — including, perhaps, a more concerted effort to push U.S. authorities to resolve the Meng/Huawei situation — that will ensure a return of the two men to Canadian soil before another such milestone passes.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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