DANDONG, CHINA (REUTERS) – One of two Canadians detained by China more than two years ago on suspicion of espionage, Michael Spavor, was due to go on trial on Friday (March 19), a case seen in Ottawa and Washington as part of a wider diplomatic spat with Beijing.
China arrested Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig in December 2018, soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, on a US warrant.
Beijing insists the detentions are not linked to the arrest of Meng, who remains under house arrest in Vancouver as she fights extradition to the United States.
Kovrig, a former diplomat, is due to go on trial on Monday in Beijing.
Police set up a cordon on Friday morning outside the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court, which sits along the Yalu River opposite North Korea, the isolated country that Spavor regularly visited in his business career.
Just before 9am (0100GMT or 9am Singapore time), court vans with a police car escort arrived at the court house, though it was not possible to see if Spavor was in any of the vehicles. The trial is expected to start at 10 am.
The trial dates were announced by Canada just as the United States and China were preparing to hold high-level talks in Alaska, the first since US President Joe Biden took office, which have proven to be contentious.
China denied on Thursday that the trials are linked to those talks.
The trial may only last one day and a verdict is unlikely to be released immediately. China has a conviction rate of well over 99 per cent.
Observers have said convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby the two men are released and sent back to Canada.
Mr Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the timing of the trials was clearly designed to coincide with the talks between the United States and China, which wants to pressure the Biden administration to arrange for Meng’s release.
“It’s fair to say that at this stage the solution has to come from Washington … (Canada) is stuck in this geopolitical game that is going on between the United States and China,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday.
“We are in a very tough position because in fact unfortunately at this stage there is nothing that the Canadian government can do.”
In a statement, Spavor’s family called for the unconditional release of both men.
“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,” they said.
“He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people.”
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