The case against the two Canadians detained in the wake of the controversial arrest of a Huawei executive was revealed by China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission on Monday.
In a statement, former diplomat Michael Kovrig was accused of spying by the Chinese government, including gathering and stealing “sensitive information and other intelligence” since 2017.
Businessman Michael Spavor is accused of providing intelligence to Kovrig, and is described as an “important contact” for the former diplomat.
“Kovrig’s alleged behavior of gathering and stealing secrets and other intelligence for a foreign power has seriously violated Chinese laws,” the statement said.
In a statement Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “obviously very concerned with this position that China has taken.”
“We have been engaging and standing up for the two Canadians who have been arbitrarily detained in China. We are a country of the rule of law. We will ensure that the rule of law is fully respected. It is unfortunate that China continues to move forward on these arbitrary detentions,” he added.
Canada, China tensions rise
Both Kovrig and Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities in December shortly after Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada for possible extradition to the US.
Huawei is China’s largest and most successful technology company, a symbol of the country’s economic rise, which has made Meng’s arrest especially significant to Beijing.
Monday’s announcement of the case against the Canadians came just two days before Meng is due to face an extradition hearing in Canadian court. The Huawei executive could be sent to the US to face charges over breaking Iran sanctions.
Her case is one of several ways the United States is trying to put pressure on Huawei. The US government claims Huawei’s technology poses a national security threat.
China has repeatedly denounced the arrest of Meng as a political decision, but Canada has said it’s just following the letter of its extradition agreement with the United States. The series of arrests have caused a major diplomatic crisis between China and Canada.
Beijing authorities had already announced Kovrig and Spavor would be charged with “endanger(ing) China’s national security.”
The comparison of Meng’s situation and that of the two Canadians is stark. While Kovrig and Spavor have been held in a Chinese jail and allowed consular access, the Huawei executive is under house arrest in her home in Vancouver.
Meng’s legal team announced this week they would be filing a lawsuit against Canadian authorities for illegally detaining her.
In their statement Monday, Chinese authorities said the two Canadians would have all their rights guaranteed and said the next judicial step would be launched at an appropriate time.
In January, more than a hundred former diplomats, academics and activists wrote an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for the immediate release of two Canadians.
‘Vague and unsubstantiated allegations’
Both Canadians have a long history of working in China. Former diplomat Kovrig is northeast Asia senior adviser for the nonprofit organization, the International Crisis Group (ICG).
In response to Monday’s revelations, ICG spokesman Hugh Pope told CNN that Kovrig’s “work for Crisis Group has been entirely transparent and in the open, as all who follow his work can attest.”
“Vague and unsubstantiated accusations against him are unwarranted and unfair,” Pope said.
Spavor is the founder of Paektu Cultural Exchange, a company that helps facilitate trips to North Korea. He has assisted former NBA player Dennis Rodman in travel to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The tense situation between Canada and China escalated further in January, when a Chinese court sentenced Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg to death on drug trafficking charges, after he was previously given a custodial sentence.
In the wake of that ruling, Ottawa issued new travel guidance for its citizens in China that warned of “the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
China issued its own travel warning for Canada in response, citing the “arbitrary detention” of a Chinese citizen for a third country as a reason for the notice.