BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese prosecutors said on Friday they have charged two detained Canadians for suspected espionage, indictments that could result in life imprisonment, in a case that has driven a diplomatic wedge between Ottawa and Beijing.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “very disappointed” and would keep pressing China to release the duo.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were arrested in late 2018 on state security charges, soon after Canadian police detained Huawei Technologies Co’s [HWT.UL] chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on a U.S. warrant.
While China maintains the detentions are not linked to Meng, former diplomats and experts have said they are being used to pressure Canada.
China has repeatedly called for Meng’s release, and has warned Canada it could face consequences for aiding the United States in her case.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing on Friday that the indictments were “of particularly serious circumstances which violated Article 111 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China,” which pertains to espionage and state secrets.
Under that article, a conviction can carry a sentence of from 10 years to life imprisonment.
“The facts are clear and the evidence is solid and sufficient. He should be held accountable for criminal responsibility under the above mentioned charge,” Zhao said of Kovrig, before making the same statement about Spavor.
The charges mean a formal trial can begin.
Trudeau, speaking to reporters in the Quebec town of Chelsea, said it was “a real shame” China did not appear to understand that governments in Canada could not interfere in the justice system.
“We will continue … to put pressure on the Chinese government to cease the arbitrary detention of these two Canadian citizens who are being held for no other reason than the Chinese government is disappointed with the independent proceedings of the Canadian judiciary,” he said.
The Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday that consular visits to detainees had been suspended due to the coronavirus.
The Canadian foreign ministry said it was “deeply concerned” that the two Canadians hadn’t been granted access to consular visits since mid-January and called for their immediate release.
The ruling Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said last year that Kovrig is accused of “stealing and spying on sensitive Chinese information and intelligence.” It said Spavor provided Kovrig with intelligence.
Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organization that focuses on conflict resolution.
ICG CEO Rob Malley said in a statement that Kovrig was not endangering national security and that “he has become an unfortunate pawn in a larger struggle among the United States, Canada and China.”
Spavor, 44, is a businessman with deep ties to North Korea.
Last month, Huawei’s Meng lost a legal bid to avoid extradition to the United States to face bank fraud charges.
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren and Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Kim Coghill and Jonathan Oatis)