Michael Spavor sentenced by Chinese court to 11 years in prison for espionage

Court website indicates the Canadian businessman will be deported, with no indication of a timeline

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Canadian businessman Michael Spavor, already jailed in China for almost 1,000 days, was convicted Wednesday of espionage and sentenced to 11 years in prison in what critics call a “preordained” result dictated by China’s Communist government.


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The court said he will be deported back to Canada but did not specify if that will happen prior to the completion of his sentence.

Deportation usually takes place after the person has finished serving a sentence, however Beijing-based lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters it can happen earlier in special cases.

The outcome was fully expected by most observers.

On the eve of the decision, Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, predicted “a harsh sentence” for Spavor, saying the case was “preordained.”

“Chinese leaders want to put more pressure on the Canadian government to return Meng Wanzhou to China,” said Saint-Jacques, referring to the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, who is detained in Canada while fighting an extradition request from the United States.


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Spavor’s fate was a political decision not a legal one, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party “is above the law,” he said.

“It confirms also that his trial was preordained as evidence was not shared with the defence and lasted only a few hours.”

Signals of which way the wind was blowing were not good for Spavor.

On Tuesday, a Chinese court upheld the death sentence for Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted of drug smuggling, but held off on updating the world on the outcome of Spavor’s higher-profile case.

The delay left Spavor’s fate an open question as lawyers for Meng prepared for final arguments in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, scheduled for this week.

“It is not a coincidence that these are happening right now, while the case is going on in Vancouver,” said Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China.


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Spavor, 45, a Canadian businessman from Calgary, was based on the China-North Korea border and was arrested in China just days after Meng’s arrest at Vancouver International Airport. InJune 2020 he was formally charged with espionage and faced a secret trial in March in the northeastern city of Dandong, across a river from North Korea.

Also detained in China around the same time, was Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who worked as a researcher for the International Crisis Group. His trial for espionage in March was also held without observers. There is no word on when Kovrig might be sentenced.

Critics have called the Canadians’ detentions “hostage diplomacy.”

Spavor’s closed-door trial in March lasted all of two hours.


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There has been little outside contact with him. Canadian diplomats, and foreign diplomats who arrived in a show of support — from the United States, Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden, and Germany — were forced to wait outside.

Unlike the Chinese process, legal arguments in Vancouver in Meng’s lengthy public case were scheduled to continue for several more weeks, with Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes hearing from lawyers for both Canada’s Department of Justice and Meng over whether she should be extradited to the United States.

Meng, 49, is wanted there on allegations she misled banks about Huawei’s relationship with another company, putting the bank at risk of violating American economic and trade sanctions against Iran. The charges are denied by both Meng and Huawei, the Chinese technology firm founded by Meng’s father, Ren Zhengfei.


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A decision in Meng’s case is expected in the autumn.

Schellenberg had been arrested for drug smuggling in 2014 and jailed for 15 years in late 2018 but his appeal reached a court in the city of Dalian shortly after Meng’s arrest — and his sentence was upgraded to execution, raising the stakes of the apparent international tit-for-tat.

The espionage charges against Kovrig and Spavor do not carry the death sentence as a possible penalty.

Saint-Jacques believes Kovrig will face the same fate as Spavor.

“I also expect that Michael Kovrig’s sentence will follow soon, and it will also be a harsh one,” he said.

Canada has been rallying international support to its side pressuring China to release Spavor and Kovrig.

Last week, in a call between Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden, the issue of “the two Michaels,” as they are often referred to, led to a joint call from the leaders for their “immediate release.”


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Biden “condemned” the “arbitrary detention” of Kovrig and Spavor, saying they are being “unjustly detained.” He promised to “stand strong with Canada to secure their release,” according to notes from the White House summarizing the call.

In this 2014 photo released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Michael Spavor is shown behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In this 2014 photo released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Michael Spavor is shown behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo by Korean Central News Agency

Spavor divided his time between Canada, China and visits to the insular country of North Korea. He is the founder of Paektu Cultural Exchange, which focused on opening international ties with North Korea; he is a rare Westerner to travel extensively in North Korea and to meet with its leader, Kim Jong Un.

“Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman who has done extraordinary things to build constructive ties between Canada, China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Spavor’s family earlier said in a statement.


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“He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people.”

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole accused Beijing of using the death penalty for political purposes and warned that Canadian citizens are not safe in China. He also raised a possible Canadian boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in China.

Saint-Jacques also said the Olympics should be re-evaluated.

“A decision has to be made about the Winter Olympics in Beijing,” he said.

“One possibility would be to delay the games and move them to another country — Canada could offer to host them with the U.S.A., using existing facilities in Vancouver, Whistler and Seattle.”

He said Canada should press the United States to conclude a plea agreement with Meng or drop the charges against her personally and continue to prosecute Huawei as a corporate entity only.


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China has rejected accusations the cases of the Canadians in China are linked to Meng’s case in Canada, though China did warn of unspecified consequences if Meng was not released.

Before the trials of the two Michaels, a senior Chinese government spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said Canada ending Meng’s proceedings “could open up space for resolution” of the two Canadian cases.

Meng maintains her innocence and has been fighting a well-funded legal and public relations campaign against her extradition while under house arrest in Vancouver, in one of her multimillion-dollar homes.

— with additional reporting by Canadian Press and Reuters



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