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China jails Canadian for 11 years in case seen as linked to Huawei CFO’s trial

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A Chinese court sentenced a Canadian citizen to 11 years in jail for spying on Wednesday, in a case that has been labelled “hostage diplomacy” in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Michael Spavor, who ran cultural exchanges with North Korea from China, was found guilty of illegally providing state secrets to foreigners, according to a statement released by the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court. Spavor will also be fined Rmb50,000 ($7,715) and deported after the sentence is served, it added.

The decision was announced a day after the Liaoning High People’s Court upheld a death sentence for Robert Schellenberg, another Canadian citizen, who had been found guilty of planning to send 225kg of methamphetamine to Australia. He denies the charges.

The two rulings were delivered as final arguments were being made in Canada to determine whether Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer, will be extradited to the US.

Meng is also the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the technology group’s founder. She has been accused by US authorities of conspiring to commit fraud and violating sanctions against Iran.

She was granted bail early in the extradition hearings and has been living in her Vancouver mansion with relatively minimal electronic surveillance.

Beijing maintains that the trials of Schellenberg, Spavor and Michael Kovrig, a third Canadian and former diplomat who has also been detained, have been handled in accordance with Chinese law. 

The three have been held separately in pre-trial holding centres, where lights are kept on at all hours and exercise and leisure time are strictly rationed.

The timing of developments in the three cases has often mirrored proceedings in Meng’s extradition hearings, leading human rights groups and former Canadian diplomats to accuse China of “hostage diplomacy”. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, has described the detentions as “arbitrary”.

The closed-door trials of Kovrig and Spavor were held in March shortly after Meng’s legal team said she had been subjected to an abuse of process in a bid to halt proceedings against her.

Schellenberg was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison in November 2018, but his penalty was raised to death two months later after he appealed against the decision.

Meng was arrested in December 2018.

The secrecy of the Canadians’ trials and highly politicised nature of the charges against them has raised concerns about due process. 

Zhang Dongshuo, Schellenberg’s lawyer, said that a letter he had sent to his client on Friday offering guidance about potential outcomes ahead of the verdict was rejected by the detention centre where he was being held. The authorities said the letter could not be delivered because of Covid-19 containment measures.

Schellenberg’s case will be transferred to the Supreme People’s Court for a review process, which “will be even less transparent than his trials”, said Tobias Smith, an expert on Chinese law at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think-tank.

“The recent verdict simply extends the status quo of legal uncertainty that Mr Schellenberg has been under for more than half a decade,” he said.

While the review process could modify the verdict to a suspended death sentence, it also allows the court “to keep the case in limbo indefinitely”, Smith added.

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