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Canada says 2 citizens held in China have not been tried

December 10, 2020 GMT
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FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2020, file photo, a woman holds a sign with photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December 2018, during a rally in support of Hong Kong democracy, in Vancouver, British Columbia. China's Foreign Ministry says two Canadians held for two years in a case linked to a Huawei executive have been indicted and tried, but gave no details. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
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FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2020, file photo, a woman holds a sign with photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December 2018, during a rally in support of Hong Kong democracy, in Vancouver, British Columbia. China's Foreign Ministry says two Canadians held for two years in a case linked to a Huawei executive have been indicted and tried, but gave no details. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

BEIJING (AP) — Canada said Thursday that it has confirmed with China that two Canadians held for two years in China in a case linked to a Huawei executive have not been put on trial, contrary to remarks by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been confined by China since December 10, 2018, just days after Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is also the daughter of the founder of the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant.

Asked about the Canadians at a daily briefing on Thursday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying said the two had been “arrested, indicted and tried,” in what appeared to be the first public assertion that they had been brought to court.

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Hua gave no details, and Canada’s Global Affairs Department issued a statement later Thursday saying that Canadian Embassy officials in Beijing had spoken with the ministry, which confirmed that the men had not gone on trial.

Chinese officials “confirmed that the confusion was caused by an inaccurate characterization of the process made by the Chinese MFA spokesperson,” the statement said.

Chinese prosecutors announced earlier this year that Kovrig had been charged on suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence, and Spavor on suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.

Neither China nor Canada has released specifics about their cases.

Canada detained Meng at the request of the United States, which is seeking her extradition to face fraud charges.

Hua said her case and those of the Canadians were ”different in nature,” with Meng’s being a “purely political incident.” Despite that, China has consistently linked the fate of the two Canadians to its demands that Meng be released immediately.

Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne issued a statement Wednesday marking their two years of captivity, saying: “These two Canadians are an absolute priority for our government, and we will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians.”

“I am struck by the integrity and strength of character the two have shown as they endure immense hardship that would shake anyone’s faith in humanity,” Champagne said.

Meng’s arrest severely damaged relations between Canada and China, which has sentenced two other Canadians to death and suspended imports of canola from Canada.

Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, is living in a luxury Vancouver home while her extradition case continues in a British Columbia court. The U.S. accuses Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company to deceive banks and do business with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

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It’s not publicly known where Kovrig and Spavor are being held or under what conditions, although Canada’s ambassador to China testified to a House of Commons committee this week that they were “robust.”

Canadian diplomats had been denied all access to the two men from January to October because of coronavirus precautions cited by the Chinese side. On-site visits were banned and not even virtual visits were permitted.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has described China’s approach as coercive diplomacy, spoke last month with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden about the case of the two men and said he expects Biden to be a good partner in persuading Beijing to release them.

The United States marked the second year of the men’s imprisonment on Thursday by calling for their immediate release.

The acting American ambassador to Canada, Katherine Brucker, said in a statement that they are being arbitrarily and unjustly detained.

“We echo the calls from the Canadian government, the international community, and the families of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for these two men to be released immediately and returned home,” Brucker said.