BEIJING — A court in China has sentenced Canadian businessman Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison for espionage, days before Canada is expected to announce whether it will extradite a Chinese executive to the United States for trial.
The Intermediate People’s Court of Dandong City, near China’s border with North Korea, said Spavor illegally provided state secrets to overseas contacts.
The ruling also said Spavor’s personal property in China would be confiscated and that he would be deported, but did not say when that might happen. Spavor has already spent 975 days in detention with nearly no contact with the outside world.
Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, said earlier this week that the timing of Spavor’s sentence was “not a coincidence.” It comes just as Canada is entering the final stretch in deliberations on whether to send Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou to the US, where she would be tried for allegedly breaking US sanctions on Iran by selling the country telecoms equipment.
Western diplomats have accused China of political hostage-taking and of having arrested the two Canadians as retaliation for Meng’s arrest. By dangling the possibility of deporting Spavor back to Canada, China may also be seeking leverage to block Meng’s potential extradition to the US.
Spavor once helped organize travel between China and North Korea and is an expert on the Korean peninsula.
He and another Canadian, former diplomat Michael Kovrig, were detained in December 2018, just days after Canada arrested Meng, who is a senior executive at Chinese telecom firm Huawei and the daughter of the company’s well-connected founder.
Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau has decried the espionage charges against Kovrig and Spavor as “trumped up” but has said he will not bow to Chinese pressure to release Meng: “We, of course, are a country of the rule of law. We will not do that. We live by our treaties and live by the rule of law.”
As news of Spavor’s sentencing was announced Wednesday morning, diplomats from 25 countries, including Japan, the “Five Eyes” countries of Australia, the United States, Great Britain, and New Zealand, and a representative from the European Union gathered at Canada’s embassy in Beijing to show support for Spavor and to protest the sentencing.
“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.
Meng Wanzhou is currently out on bail in Canada and is able to move around with a GPS tracker strapped to her ankle. Her posh living conditions – she currently resides in a mansion in an upscale Vancouver neighborhood – have stoked anger in Canada.
By contrast, Spavor and Kovrig have been held in secretive Chinese jails. Both men were put on trial this March, but they were closed to the public and Canadian diplomats were barred from observing the trial because China said the contents concerned national security.
Kovrig is still awaiting a verdict.