OTTAWA — A Chinese court found a Canadian entrepreneur guilty of espionage Wednesday in a case at the nexus of nearly 1,000 days of frayed relations between Ottawa and Beijing.
The court in Dandong sentenced Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison, according to several media outlets. Some reports say there is a deportation order, though the timing of when that would apply is not immediately clear.
The backdrop: Spavor’s verdict and sentencing was the second major courtroom decision in China this week involving a Canadian.
The developments come as extradition hearings for senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou are winding down in Vancouver. Canadian authorities arrested Meng in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition warrant, a move that infuriated Beijing.
The Canadians: Spavor was arrested in China nine days after Meng. The businessperson, who introduced basketball legend Dennis Rodman to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was tried in secret in March.
The same day of Spavor’s arrest, Chinese authorities rounded up Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave. Kovrig was also tried on espionage charges behind closed doors a few days after Spavor. No date for his verdict has been made public.
On Tuesday, another court upheld a death penalty ruling for Canadian Robert Schellenberg, whose initial sentence for a drug-trafficking conviction was 15 years behind bars. A retrial for Schellenberg, a few weeks after Meng’s arrest, transformed his jail term into a death sentence.
The efforts: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has condemned the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig. The charges against them, Trudeau has said, are “trumped-up.” The high-profile cases of the “two Michaels” have become a top foreign policy challenge for Trudeau.
In an effort to put pressure on Beijing, Trudeau has repeatedly urged international allies to call for their release.
In February, President Joe Biden vowed to fight for Spavor and Kovrig. So far, it’s unclear how Biden intends to help.
The three Canadians are unlikely to see any change in their legal situations unless Meng is freed. U.S. Department of Justice officials have held talks with Meng's legal team about the possibility of a deferred prosecution agreement, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
The reaction: Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, was asked by reporters Tuesday after the Schellenberg decision about a connection between Meng’s extradition proceedings and the cases of the three Canadians in China.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence these are happening right now while events are going on in Vancouver,” said Barton, who added it was “part of the geopolitical process of what is happening.”
Barton said the Schellenberg case will be sent to the Supreme People’s Court for review.
“Our thoughts are with Robert and his family. It’s obviously a very difficult time,” Barton said in a statement outside the courthouse. “Canada condemns this verdict on all possible terms and, again, we call on China to grant Robert Schellenberg clemency. We’ve expressed our firm opposition to this cruel and unusual punishment.”
Canadian officials thanked the governments of Australia, France, Germany and the U.S. for sending representatives to the courthouse.
Backdrop and repercussions: Canada-China diplomatic relations rapidly deteriorated after the arrests of Meng, Spavor and Kovrig.
In the months that followed, China also blocked some shipments of key Canadian agricultural products, including canola seed, soybeans and, temporarily, pork.
The politics: The courthouse developments in China come amid high expectations that Trudeau is poised to trigger a snap election. A campaign would put a spotlight on his efforts, unsuccessful so far, to help the three Canadians and on his approach to China in general.
Opposition leaders offered clues Tuesday on how they might address the issue during an election campaign:
— Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told reporters that Canada should consider a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. “The denial of Robert Schellenberg’s appeals must be seen for what it is — a foreign government planning to take the life of a Canadian for political reasons,” O’Toole said. “The use of the death penalty is abhorrent, but to impose it for political reasons is inexcusable. … The Chinese Communist Party needs to know that the world is watching.”
— New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh told a separate press conference Tuesday that Canada must use all its tools and resources to secure the releases of Spavor and Kovrig, and to help Schellenberg. “This is a Canadian, we need to save his life,” Singh said.
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