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China charges 2 Canadians with spying in Huawei-linked case

Chinese prosecutors charged two detained Canadians with spying Friday in an apparent bid to step up pressure on Canada to drop a U.S. extradition request for a Huawei executive under house arrest in Vancouver.

Michael Kovrig was charged by Beijing on suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence. Michael Spavor was charged in Dandong, a city near the North Korean border, on suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.

The charges were announced by China’s highest prosecutor’s office in brief social media posts.

Both men have been held for 18 months. They were detained shortly after the December 2018 Vancouver arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei. The daughter of Huawei’s founder was arrested at the request of U.S. authorities who want her on fraud charges related to trade with Iran.

China has repeatedly called for the release of Meng, and has warned Canada that it could face consequences for aiding the U.S. in Meng’s case.

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Fates linked to Meng

China has denied any link between her case and the lengthy detention of the two Canadian men, but outside experts see them as linked. Meng has been released on bail while her extradition case proceeds in court.

Meng is accused of lying to an HSBC executive in Hong Kong in August 2013 about Huawei’s relationship with Skycom, a company prosecutors claim was violating U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.

meng wanzhou verdict
Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou leaves B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on May 27. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The U.S. claims Skycom was actually a subsidiary of Huawei and that HSBC and other banks placed themselves at risk of prosecution and financial loss by continuing to provide financing to Huawei based on Meng’s reassurances.

Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s billionaire founder, has denied the allegations.

Meng was released on $10 million bail and has been living for the past year and a half under a form of house arrest in one of two homes she owns on Vancouver’s west side.

In China, Kovrig and Spavor remain in solitary confinement. Neither man has been seen by Canadian consular officials since January.

Last month, a B.C. judge ruled the U.S. extradition case against Meng could proceed to the next stage. 

WATCH | Meng Wanzhou leaves court after losing bid to stop her extradition:

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou lost a major court battle on May 27, 2020, as a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled extradition proceedings against her should move ahead. 0:57

Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes dealt Meng’s defence a significant blow by ruling that the proceedings should continue, as the case met the bar for so-called “double criminality” and that Meng’s alleged offence would be considered a crime had it happened in Canada.

Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat who has worked as a senior adviser for International Crisis Group. ICG has previously said the accusations against Kovrig are “vague and unsubstantiated.”

Spavor, 44, is a businessman, originally from Calgary, who helped to arrange travel into North Korea.

Denied access to lawyers

China has also sentenced two other Canadians to death and suspended imports of Canadian canola, while saying those moves were also unrelated to Meng’s case.

Relations between Canada and China are at their lowest point since the Chinese military’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

meng wanzhou verdict
Meng leaves her home for the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver May 27. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

David Malley, Kovrig’s former boss at International Crisis Group, said in an interview last December that his former employee was holding up in prison, basing his assessment on what he’s heard from Canadian officials who have visited him. 

At the time, the two Canadians had been allowed about one consular visit per month by Canadian diplomats. But they have been denied access to lawyers and all others.

Bell and Telus shun Huawei

The tensions appear to be causing further harm to Huawei’s reputation in the Americas, with two of Canada’s three major telecommunication companies announcing earlier this month that they’ve decided not to use the Chinese tech giant for their next-generation 5G wireless network.

Bell Canada announced that Sweden-based Ericsson will be its supplier and Telus Corp. later announced that it had also selected Ericsson and Nokia.

Huawei is the world’s biggest supplier of network gear used by phone and internet companies, but has long been seen as a front for spying by China’s military and its highly skilled security services.

The U.S. has urged Canada to exclude Huawei equipment from its next-generation wireless networks, saying Huawei is legally beholden to the Chinese regime. The United States and Australia have banned Huawei, citing concerns it is an organ of Chinese military intelligence — a charge the company denies.

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