Timing of the trials of Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig seen as a political move designed to coincide with US-China talks.

Michael Spavor, one of two Canadians detained by China more than two years ago, appeared in court on Friday morning to face charges of espionage, in a case seen in Ottawa and Washington as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive on an extradition warrant from the United States.

China detained Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, an  former diplomat, in December 2018, just days after Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer.

Beijing insists the detentions are not linked to the arrest of Meng, who remains under house arrest in one of her Vancouver mansions, as she fights extradition to the United States.

The two men have had almost no contact with the outside world since they were detained, and virtual consular visits resumed only in October after a nine-month hiatus which authorities said was necessary bevcause of the coronavirus.

Kovrig, a former diplomat, is due to go on trial on Monday in Beijing.

Police set up a cordon on Friday outside the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court, which sits along the Yalu River opposite North Korea, the isolated country that Spavor visited regularly as a businessman.

Just before 9 am local time (01:00GMT), court vans with a police car escort arrived at the court, although it was not possible to see if Spavor was inside any of the vehicles. The trial was scheduled to start at 10 am (02:00GMT).

The trial dates were announced by Canada just as the United States and China were preparing to hold high-level talks in Alaska, the first since US President Joe Biden took office, which have proven to be contentious.

Diplomatic deal

China denied on Thursday that the trials were linked to those talks.

The trial may only last one day and a verdict is unlikely to be released immediately. China has a conviction rate of more than 99 percent.

Observers have said convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement which would allow the two men to be released and sent back to Canada.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the timing of the trials was clearly designed to coincide with the talks between the United States and China, which wants to pressure the Biden administration to arrange for Meng’s release.

Foreign diplomats wait outside the Intermediate People’s Court where Michael Spavor is expected to stand trial, in Dandong, Liaoning province on Friday [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

“It’s fair to say that at this stage the solution has to come from Washington … (Canada) is stuck in this geopolitical game that is going on between the United States and China,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday.

“We are in a very tough position because in fact unfortunately at this stage there is nothing that the Canadian government can do.”

Meng – whose father is Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei – has been in a two-year battle against extradition to the US over charges the firm violated US sanctions on Iran.

Her court case in Vancouver has entered its final phase with hearings expected to end in mid-May, barring appeals.

In a statement, Spavor’s family called for the unconditional release of both men.

“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,” they said.

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

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