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Canadian Michael Spavor found guilty of spying, sentenced to 11 years in prison by Chinese court

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says sentence is ‘absolutely unacceptable and unjust’

Canadian Michael Spavor has been found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Chinese court in a verdict that will further test the strained relationship between the Canadian and Chinese governments.

Spavor is also being ordered deported by the court, though it is not immediately clear if that will happen before or after the 11 year prison sentence is served.

Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton, who attended Spavor’s hearing in Dandong, a coastal city near the border with North Korea, said he believes it will occur after he completes his sentence.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this decision after a legal process that lacked both fairness and transparency,” Barton said in a video address to diplomats and journalists gathered at the Canadian embassy.

Spavor was also convicted of illegally providing state secrets to other countries.

The United States embassy in Beijing also condemned the sentencing in a statement, saying that proceedings against Spavor and another Canadian charged with espionage were an attempt to “use human beings as bargaining leverage.”

The verdict and sentencing mark a significant new development in Spavor’s journey through the Chinese legal system, which Ottawa and other observers have decried for a perceived lack of transparency.

Trudeau condemns sentence

Ottawa has called repeatedly on the Chinese government to release Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, who were both detained in what is widely seen as an act of retaliation following the arrest of the Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December, 2018

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the sentence “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,” Trudeau said in a statement early Wednesday.

Barton, who visited with Spavor following the verdict, said Spavor had three messages that he asked to be shared with the outside world: “Thank you for all your support,” “I am in good spirits,” and “I want to get home.”

Canada’s Chargé d’affaires Jim Nickel speaks at the Canadian embassy in Beijing Wednesday as a court in Dandong ruled on Spavor’s case. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

Spavor was based 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.

 In a statement, Spavor’s family said they disagreed the charges and said the next step is to “bring Michael home.

“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,” the statement said. “This situation has not dampened, but strengthened his passion.”

The verdict in Spavor’s case was delivered at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday — Wednesday morning in China. The ruling also calls for the confiscation of approximately $10,000 of personal property.

The potential impact of Michael Spavor’s sentence

The Spavor verdict arrived just over 24 hours after a different Chinese court upheld a death sentence for Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted on charges of drug smuggling.

Canada and several of its international allies condemned that decision and have called on China to grant clemency in the case.

Ottawa maintains that Spavor and Kovrig, a former diplomat, were arbitrarily detained.

Kovrig’s trial concluded in March but it’s not clear when a verdict in his case will be delivered.

Meng, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, faces possible extradition to the United States for charges linked to violation of sanctions.

Her extradition hearings in Vancouver are currently in their last few weeks ahead of a ruling from a B.C. Supreme Court, expected sometime in the next few months.

Canada’s Chargé d’affaires Jim Nickel and diplomats from other countries gathered at the Canadian embassy in Beijing Wednesday. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

Links to Meng

Earlier, during a news conference in Shenyang, China, where the Schellenberg verdict was announced, Barton suggested the cases are linked to Meng’s trial.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence these are happening right now while events are going on in Vancouver,” Dominic Barton told reporters Tuesday.

Speaking to Power & Politics Tuesday, Guy Saint-Jacques, a former ambassador to China, said that Canada should boycott next year’s Beijing Olympics over China’s handling of the Schellenberg case.

Schellenberg initially was handed a 15-year sentence before his punishment was upgraded to the death penalty following a retrial that lasted only one day.

The death sentence was delivered in January 2019, a month after Meng was arrested.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau condemned the verdict.

“This decision is rendered after a legal process that lacked both fairness and transparency, including a trial that did not satisfy the minimum standards required by international law,” he said in a statement.

The European Union also formally called on China to grant clemency to Schellenberg. A spokesperson for the EU raised concerns about due process and “arbitrariness” in the case.

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