A Chinese court has sentenced Canadian businessman Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison for espionage, more than two years after he was first detained.
Spavor, a Beijing-based businessman who regularly traveled to North Korea, was sentenced after being found guilty of spying and illegally providing state secrets to foreign countries, the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court said in a statement Wednesday.
The court said Spavor would also be deported, without specifying whether it was before or after he served his prison sentence.
Spavor was detained in December 2018 alongside Canadian Michael Kovrig on espionage charges. The two men were detained following the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, over allegations the company violated United States sanctions on Iran.
Meng, whose extradition hearing is ongoing, has been held under house arrest in Vancouver since 2018.
Speaking from Dandong on Wednesday, Canadian Ambassador to China Dominic Barton said his government condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the sentence handed down to Spavor.
Barton said he had spoken to Spavor after the verdict was delivered, and the Canadian had asked him to deliver three messages.
“One, thank you for all your support, it means a lot to me. Two, I am in good spirits, and three, I want to get home,” Barton said, relaying Spavor’s remarks. The ambassador said the legal process had “lacked both fairness and transparency,” and linked the sentencing of Spavor to the ongoing trial of Meng in Canada.
Speaking to Spavor’s deportation sentence, Barton said they had interpreted it as an 11-year jail term followed by deportation from China but added it could be “very important.”
“Is there a chance to get (him) home earlier? We’ve been considering that in terms of the appeal but that deportation phrase was noted,” he said.
Family members and contacts of the two Canadian men have described them as being held in poor conditions and denied outside contact. Almost all in-person consular visits to foreign prisoners in China have been paused since last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with diplomats only able to speak to those detained via the phone.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced the sentencing Wednesday as “absolutely unacceptable and unjust,” saying in a statement Canada’s top priority is securing their release.
“The verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process, and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law,” Trudeau said. “We will not rest until they are safely brought home.”
Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who worked for the International Crisis Group (ICG), is accused by the Chinese authorities of “stealing sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017.” Authorities in China have yet to announce a date for his verdict or sentencing.
Chinese courts have a conviction rate of more than 99% and observers say the release of the two men could now rest on a diplomatic solution, potentially after a face-saving conviction and sentence of time served.
In a statement Wednesday, the United States Embassy in China strongly condemned the verdict, describing it as a “blatant attempt” to use people as “bargaining leverage.”
However, Trudeau has repeatedly refused to consider any trade of the two Canadians for Meng, whose detention has seen relations plunge between Ottawa and Beijing. Earlier this year, Canada’s parliament approved a non-binding motion accusing China of committing genocide against its Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang, further straining ties between the two countries.
University of Toronto Associate Professor Lynette Ong said that adding the deportation phrase to Spavor’s sentencing gave the Chinese government “bargaining power.”
“From a Canadian perspective, it allows Canada to expect a more favorable outcome than 11 years,” she said.