Canadian Michael Spavor, one of two men who have been detained in China for two and a half years in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, has been found guilty of espionage charges by a court in China, and sentenced to 11 years in a Chinese prison, according to media reports Tuesday night.
It’s the latest move by China that observers say is meant to up the ante in a high-stakes game of intimidation the government in Beijing has been playing with Canada.
The verdict came five months after Spavor’s trial, which took place behind closed doors in a matter of hours. Chinese legal experts say that, in the Chinese criminal system, more than 99 per cent of cases that go to trial result in convictions.
On Monday, a Chinese court upheld Robert Schellenberg’s death sentence, rejecting his appeal. Schellenberg had been convicted on drug-trafficking charges in mid-January 2019.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were arrested days apart in China in 2018, shortly after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport at the request of the U.S., where she is wanted on fraud charges. The “two Michaels” have been in Chinese detention ever since, facing espionage charges — cases widely seen as retaliation for the detention of Meng in Vancouver.
Spavor was tried in March, but neither reporters nor Canadian officials were allowed to watch the proceedings. Ten diplomats representing eight countries also arrived at the courthouse in a show of support for Spavor at the time of the trial.
International and bilateral treaties stipulate that Canadian diplomats be granted access to the trials involving its citizens. However, the court denied them entry to Spavor’s trial because it said the case involves national security, according to Jim Nickel, the Canadian embassy’s deputy chief of mission.
Michael Kovrig, who was tried in March, is also awaiting a verdict.
Canada has condemned the trials, calling the arrests “arbitrary” — a claim Beijing rejects.
To Clive Ansley, a former lawyer in both Canada and China who now consults on China the guilty verdict against Spavor was, “for all practical purposes,” a foregone conclusion.
“From the time the person is detained and interrogated right through the time he’s sentenced, there is not a single step that is remotely fair to the accused,” Ansley said. “Talking about a fair trial in China — it’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ stuff.”
Ansley said the guilty verdict is unlikely to immediately change anything about Spavor’s circumstances — for example, he is likely to be held in the same conditions as before. All that changes is that China has taken one further step in the case against Spavor, ramping up pressure on Canada to do what the Chinese government wants and release Meng.
“We’ve got a history of weakness and giving in and doing the bidding of the Chinese government when they’re making demands,” Ansley said. “I don’t see it as so absurd that they think that they eventually may be able to squeeze the government enough to get their way.”
The guilty verdict is another blow for Canadian friends of Spavor, who describe him as a guy with unmatched curiosity and zest for life.
“He’s a huge flirt in the nicest way. He’s just a peach of a guy. He’s extremely friendly, gets along with absolutely everybody,” said Tim Wright, a Calgary area man who is friends with Spavor. “Of all the friends I have, he’s the least likely to commit espionage like the Chinese government is accusing him.”
Spavor became interested in Asia, and Korea in particular, following a trip to South Korea in 1997, when he taught English.
He spent the following decades between Korea and Canada, eventually finishing a degree in International Relations at the University of Calgary. In South Korea, he worked as a consultant, and eventually ran an organization called Paektu Cultural Exchange, which organizes business, cultural and tourism trips to North Korea.
One of the trips Spavor organized was NBA star Dennis Rodman’s visit to meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Wright, who visited Spavor in South Korea and met with him whenever he came back to Canada, said the way Spavor sought out unique life experiences made him a magnetic person to talk to.
“He has a lot of life experiences that people typically don’t get. He was the translator for Dennis Rodman, he’s one of the few westerners to have shaken hands with Kim Jong Un,” Wright said. “I really feel for Michael being there now 2.5 years. I’ve even written him a letter and I have no idea if he’s seen it or not.”
Dan Vroon, who met Spavor when he was also an expat living in South Korea and is now in the Vancouver area, said he was holding out hope the Chinese government would do “the right thing” and release Spavor, as well as Kovrig.
“I’m not surprised to see him in such a prominent position in the media. I was surprised to find out he was in the media for these negative reasons,” Vroon said.
Spavor is ambitious in his work with North Korea, stoutly apolitical, and unique in his determination, Vroon said.
“I’ve met maybe four people in my life who can speak Korean in a North Korean dialect. Mike just picked it up immediately,” Vroon said. “I think it’s really difficult for him, and my heart goes out to him because obviously he won’t be able to continue doing what his life’s work was.”