DANDONG, China (AP) — A Canadian entrepreneur was sentenced to 11 years in prison Wednesday in a spy case linked to Beijing's effort to push his country to release an executive of tech giant Huawei, prompting an unusual joint show of support for Canada by the United States, Japan and 23 other governments.
China is stepping up pressure as a Canadian judge hears final arguments about whether to send the Huawei executive to the United States to face charges related to possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran. On Tuesday, a court rejected another Canadian's appeal of a death sentence in a drug case that was increased after the executive's arrest.
Entrepreneur Michael Spavor and a former Canadian diplomat were detained in what critics labeled “hostage politics” after Huawei's Meng Wanzhou, was arrested Dec. 1, 2018, at the Vancouver airport.
Spavor was sentenced by a court in Dandong, about 210 miles (340 kilometers) east of Beijing on the North Korean border. The government has released few details other than to accuse Spavor of passing along sensitive information to the former diplomat, Michael Kovrig, beginning in 2017. Both have been held in isolation and have little contact with Canadian diplomats.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement following the verdict, calling it "absolutely unacceptable and unjust."
"Today's 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 statement read. "For Mr. Spavor, as well as for Michael Kovrig who has also been arbitrarily detained, our top priority remains securing their immediate release. We will continue working around the clock to bring them home as soon as possible."
"Our thoughts, and the thoughts of all Canadians, are with Mr. Spavor and his loved ones during this incredibly difficult time. The Government of Canada continues to provide consular assistance to Mr. Spavor and his family as we work to secure his safe return."
The legal process in Spavor's case "lacked both fairness and transparency,” said Ambassador Dominic Barton outside a detention center where the sentence was announced.
Spavor has two weeks to decide whether to appeal, according to Barton.
“While we disagree with the charges, we realize that this is the next step in the process to bring Michael home and we will continue to support him through this challenging time,” Spavor's family said in a statement.
“Michael’s life passion has been to bring different cultures together through tourism and events shared between the Korean peninsula and other countries including China and Canada,” his family said. “This situation has not dampened, but strengthened his passion.”
In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau condemned China's conviction and sentencing of Spavor "in the strongest possible terms."
"We have maintained for more than two and a half years that the detentions of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are completely arbitrary. These concerns have been echoed by many other countries who continue to voice their support for these Canadians."
Garneau thanked those countries that have called for the release of Canadian citizens arbitrarily detained in China.
Diplomats from the United States, Japan, Britain, Australia, Germany and other European countries plus the European Union gathered at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in a show of support. They also have issued separate appeals for Spavor and Kovrig to receive fair trials or to be released.
“These proceedings are a blatant attempt to use human beings as bargaining leverage,” the top American diplomat in China, David Meale, said in a statement. “Human beings should never be used as bargaining chips.”
Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Ltd. and daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested on U.S. charges of lying to the Hong Kong arm of the British bank HSBC about possible dealings with Iran in violation of trade sanctions.
Meng’s lawyers argue the case is politically motivated and what she is accused of isn’t a crime in Canada.
China’s government has criticized the arrest as part of U.S. efforts to hamper its technology development. Huawei, a maker of network equipment and smartphones, is China’s first global tech brand and is at the center of U.S.-Chinese tension over technology and the security of information systems.
Beijing denies there is a connection between Meng’s case and the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig, but Chinese officials and state media frequently mention the two men in relation to whether or not Meng is allowed to return to China.
Earlier, Barton said he didn’t think it was a coincidence the cases in China were happening while Meng’s case was advancing in Vancouver.
Asked whether Canada was negotiating over possibly sending Meng home in exchange for the release of detained Canadians, Barton said, “there are intensive efforts and discussions. I don’t want to talk in any detail about that. But that will continue.”
Canada and other countries including Australia and the Philippines face trade boycotts and other Chinese pressure in disputes with Beijing over human rights, the coronavirus and control of the South China Sea. The United States has warned American travelers face a “heightened risk of arbitrary detention” in China for reasons other than to enforce laws.
Diplomats from the United States and Germany went to the detention center in Dandong but weren't allowed in, according to Barton.
“Our collective presence and voice send a strong message to China and the Chinese government that the eyes of the world are watching," the ambassador said.
Barton said Chinese authorities cited photos taken by Spavor at airports that included military aircraft.
“A lot of it was around the photo evidence,” the ambassador said. “He obviously had a different view on that.”
Barton met with Spavor after the sentencing and said he sent three messages: “Thank you for all your support, it means a lot to me. Two, I am in good spirits. And three, I want to get home.”
“He's strong, resilient, focused on what's happening," Barton said. "We had a very good conversation.”
Kovrig, who also was detained in December 2018, stood trial in March. There has been no word on when a verdict might be announced.
The Canadian Embassy noted Spavor had been held for 975 days as of Wednesday.
Spavor worked in China but had extensive links with North Korea in tourism and other commercial ventures that brought him into contact with the isolated communist state’s leadership.
On Tuesday, a Chinese court rejected the appeal of Robert Schellenberg, whose 15-year prison term for drug smuggling was abruptly increased to death in January 2019 following Meng's arrest. The case was sent to China's supreme court for a mandatory review before it can be carried out.
China has tried to pressure Trudeau’s government by imposing restrictions on imports of canola seed oil and other products from Canada.
Meanwhile, Beijing is blocking imports of Australian wheat, wine and other products after its government called for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.
With files from The Canadian Press.
McDonald reported from Beijing. Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Dandong, China, contributed.
Joe Mcdonald And Ng Han Guan, The Associated Press