Canada presses China on ‘arbitrary’ detention of citizens

TORONTO — Canada tried to turn up pressure on China on Saturday over the detention of two Canadians caught up in a struggle between global superpowers, with its foreign minister calling their imprisonment “arbitrary” and “a precedent that is worrying not only for Canada but for the world.”

China seized the two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur and writer Michael Spavor, shortly after Canada detained a Chinese telecommunications executive at the behest of the United States. The detentions of Kovrig and Spavor have rattled Canadians, many of whom do business and have family in China, and the government stressed that it was working feverishly for their release.

“We also believe this is not only a Canadian issue,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a conference call Saturday. “It is an issue that concerns our allies.”

Canada is in a tricky spot, boxed in between its two largest trading partners and worried about having to choose sides. After feeling burned by negotiations to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, the country is trying to strengthen trade relations with China to lessen dependence on economic ties to the United States.

Freeland said that on Friday she met with the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, for a second time and that Canadian ambassadors around the world are rallying their counterparts for support. The US State Department, the European Union, and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt have all said they are concerned about the arrests.

Both were detained after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, a powerful Chinese telecommunications equipment company. She was arrested on Dec. 1 while she was transferring flights in Vancouver.

Canadian authorities arrested Meng at the request of American prosecutors who want to extradite her on charges of fraudulently convincing banks to facilitate transactions that breached US sanctions against Iran. Meng was granted bail after a three-day hearing, and if a Canadian court agrees to an extradition request, she can still appeal.

“Canada is a rule-of-law country and has been behaving according to the rule of law,” Freeland said. “Our allies understand what is at stake, and it was good to have them come out and say that publicly.”

Chinese authorities arrested Kovrig on a street in Beijing. Kovrig has worked since early 2017 for the International Crisis Group, an organization that tries to resolve international conflicts.

Soon after, police in China arrested Spavor, a Canadian writer and businessman who runs an organization that promotes tours of North Korea. The Chinese government has accused both men of “endangering national security,” but it has not laid out more specific allegations.

A person familiar with Kovrig’s case, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive details about it, said he has been questioned morning, afternoon, and evening by Chinese investigators, and is not allowed to turn the lights off in his cell when he wants to sleep at night.

The Canadian ambassador to Beijing, John McCallum, and two Canadian consular officers visited Kovrig for about a half-hour four days after he was arrested, and he will be allowed one consular a visit a month, the person said. But Kovrig has not been allowed to see a lawyer, or family and loved ones. Nor has he been allowed to sign a letter that would allow him to retain a lawyer, the person said.

Chinese officials have not said outright that they would release Kovrig and Spavor in exchange for Meng’s return to China. But they have left little doubt that their arrests were in reprisal.

“Those who accuse China of detaining some person in retaliation for the arrest of Ms. Meng should first reflect on the actions of the Canadian side,” the Chinese ambassador to Ottawa, Lu, wrote last week in an op-ed article in The Globe and Mail.

Freeland said Chinese officials had not made that direct connection.

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