Chinese court sentences Canadian Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison in espionage case

Case embroiled in wider diplomatic spat involving Washington and Beijing

A Chinese court on Wednesday sentenced Canadian citizen Michael Spavor to 11 years in jail for espionage, a day after another court upheld a Canadian man's death sentence for drug smuggling, prompting western condemnation.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the sentencing of businessman Spavor was "absolutely unacceptable" and called for his immediate release.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned the sentencing, as well as proceedings against another Canadian charged with espionage.

"The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable," Mr Blinken said in a statement.

The espionage cases are embroiled in a wider diplomatic spat involving Washington and Beijing, and Spavor's sentencing comes as lawyers in Canada representing Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms company Huawei, make a final push to convince a court not to extradite her to the US.

Separately, another Canadian, former diplomat Michael Kovrig, was detained in China and charged with espionage in late 2018, days after Ms Meng’s arrest. His trial concluded in March with the verdict to be announced at an unspecified date.

"China's conviction and sentencing of Michael Spavor is absolutely unacceptable and unjust," Mr Trudeau said.

"The 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."

Ms Meng's hearing is in its final stages before a Canadian judge makes a recommendation about whether to proceed with her extradition. A ruling is expected in the autumn.

Canadian Robert Schellenberg was arrested in China in 2014, charged with drug smuggling and sentenced in 2018. He was initially to spend 15 years in jail but was condemned to death by a court in Dalian in January 2019 – a month after Ms Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on a warrant from the US.

The High Court in the north-eastern Chinese province of Liaoning heard Schellenberg's appeal against the death sentence in May last year and upheld the verdict on Tuesday.

"Canada strongly condemns China's decision to uphold the death penalty sentence," Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said.

"We have repeatedly expressed to China our firm opposition to this cruel and inhumane punishment."

Ms Meng was charged with misleading HSBC Holdings about Huawei's business dealings in Iran, potentially causing the bank to breach US sanctions against Tehran.

Ms Meng, who has said she is innocent, has been fighting her extradition from Vancouver. Her bail conditions mean she can leave her residence during the day and the evening under supervision but must stay at home at night.

Canada's ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, said on Tuesday that the proceedings against Canadian citizens were not a coincidence.

Mr Barton visited Spavor at a detention centre in north-eastern China following the verdict. Spavor had three messages that he asked to be shared with the outside world, Mr Barton said.

The messages were: "Thank you for all your support", "I am in good spirits," and "I want to get home".

"While we disagree with the charges, we realise that this is the next step in the process to bring Michael home and we will continue to support him through this challenging time," the Spavor family said.

Noting the presence of diplomats from 25 countries gathered at the Canadian embassy, Mr Barton said "our collective presence and voice sends a strong signal to China and the Chinese government in particular, that all the eyes of the world are watching".

The Dandong Intermediate Court also said 50,000 yuan ($7,708) of Spavor's personal assets would be confiscated. He will be deported once his sentence his completed, Mr Barton said.

The potential sentence ranged from five to 20 years.

China detained Spavor in December 2018 and he was charged with espionage in June 2019. The Dandong court concluded a one-day trial in March this year and waited until Wednesday to announce the verdict.

Spavor's family said in March that the charges against him were vague and had not been made public, and that he had “very limited access and interaction with his retained Chinese defence counsel”.

Ottawa has accused Beijing of engaging in "hostage diplomacy" in a bid to free Ms Meng. China has rejected the suggestion that the cases are linked while issuing a warning of unspecified consequences unless Ms Meng is released.

"Schellenberg's case is of a completely different nature from Meng's case. Those who link the two together have ulterior motives," a Chinese Foreign Ministry representative said on Tuesday.

Chinese courts have a conviction rate of more than 99 per cent.

Since Ms Meng's arrest, China has sentenced at least three Chinese-born Canadians to death for drug offences.

On Tuesday, Canadian government prosecutors pushed back on assertions by Ms Meng's lawyers that alleged abuses of process by Canadian and US authorities throughout her case should be taken together to warrant a stay on her extradition.

No significant misconduct took place, prosecutor Robert Frater said.

Reviewing each alleged abuse individually would allow the court to decide whether other remedies for each one would be sufficient, he said.

Ms Meng's hearings are scheduled to be completed by August 20.

Updated: August 11th 2021, 1:10 PM