Ottawa and Beijing exchange words after Canadian Michael Spavor stands trial in China

Spavor has been in Chinese detention since December 2018 on charges of espionage

Journalists film as security officers stand guard at an entrance to a court building in Dandong in northeastern China's Liaoning Province, Friday, March 19, 2021. China was expected to open the first trial Friday for Michael Spavor, one of two Canadians who have been held for more than two years in apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest of a senior Chinese telecom executive. (AP Photo/Ken Moritsugu)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concern about the trial of a Canadian citizen in China on Friday.

Michael Spavor, who has been detained in China since December 2018, stood trial in the northern city of Dandong on charges of illegally spying on national secrets and illegally providing state secrets to entities outside of China.

The trial lasted only a few hours and ended without a verdict or sentencing. Canadian consular officials were denied entry to the courtroom, prompting Mr Trudeau to speak out.

“It is disappointing that the trial that Michael Spavor went through and possibly the trial that Michael Kovrig will go through on Monday is happening in secret without transparency, without access by Canadian consular officials,” Mr Trudeau said, referring to another Canadian who is facing similar charges of espionage.

Ottawa says the “two Michaels”, as they are referred to in Canadian media, are victims of arbitrary detention and are being tried in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018.

Beijing denies this. A representative for the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa called the accusations “fact distorting”.

In a statement released on the embassy’s website, the representative said, “Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested and prosecuted in accordance with the law for suspected crimes undermining China's national security. China's judicial authorities have been dealing with the cases independently and ensuring their lawful rights, including consular visits to them.”

Tension between the two countries has been high since the arrests in 2018, and the trial of Mr Spavor and the coming one of Mr Kovrig are likely to further complicate bilateral relations.

“It’s an indication of a change of season, that we’re going into a winter in bilateral relations,” said Paul Evans, a professor in the school of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia.

Mr Trudeau has looked to Washington for help in securing the release of Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig. “We will continue to work very closely with all our allies, including the United States, on trying to resolve the situation,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held face-to-face meetings with his Chinese counterpart in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday and Friday. A deputy representative for the US State Department reiterated calls for China to release Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig, calling their detention "arbitrary and baseless".

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