Prisoner swap Canadians freed for health reasons, says China

The comment came as Beijing sought to downplay the link between the Canadians’ release and the return to China of a long-detained Huawei executive.

Michael Kovrig
Michael Kovrig

Two Canadians detained in late 2019 who were allowed to return to Canada in a prisoner swap were released on bail for health reasons, China’s foreign ministry has said.

A ministry spokeswoman made the comment as Beijing sought to downplay the connection between their release and the return to China of a long-detained Huawei Technologies executive.

Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in December 2019, days after Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada at the request of US authorities.

Many countries labelled China’s action “hostage politics”, while China accused Canada of arbitrary detention.

The two Canadians were jailed for more than 1,000 days.

Ms Meng fought the US demand for extradition from Canada. She landed in China on Saturday after reaching a deal with the American Justice Department that led to a prisoner swap.

“The case of Meng Wanzhou is completely different from that of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in nature,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Monday.

The two men were suspected of endangering national security, Ms Hua said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embraces Michael Kovrig as he returns home
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau embraces Michael Kovrig as he returns home (CTV via AP)

Mr Spavor, an entrepreneur, had been sentenced to 11 years in prison, accused of spying.

Mr Kovrig had not yet been sentenced but was facing similar charges.

China released the two Canadians on bail after a “diagnosis by professional medical institutions, and with the guarantee of the Canadian ambassador to China”, Ms Hua said.

Ms Hua did not answer questions from journalists about whether the prisoner releases were entirely unrelated and what the health reasons were.

Canada has maintained that Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor were innocent of any charges.

“As we have said from the beginning, Michael Kovrig’s and Michael Spavor’s detention, and the treatment they were subjected to up until their departure from China, was arbitrary,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement.

“These two men are innocent.”

Meng Wanzhou supporters gather at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport
Meng Wanzhou supporters gather at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Ms Meng reached an agreement with US federal prosecutors that will drop fraud charges against her next year. In return, she is accepting responsibility for misrepresenting the company’s business dealings in Iran.

Her return to China was broadcast live on the country’s central broadcaster, CCTV, as she wore a red dress the shade of China’s flag and thanked the country’s leader Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party.

On Monday, Ms Hua said Ms Meng was a victim of “political persecution” and was able to return to China thanks to the “government’s unrelenting efforts”.

In contrast, news about the release of the two Canadians was reported by the state-owned tabloid Global Times, and while the news spread online, it was not carried by more authoritative state media agencies like CCTV or Xinhua.

Huawei is the biggest global supplier of network equipment for phone and internet companies. It has been a symbol of China’s progress in becoming a technological world power, and a subject of US security and law enforcement concerns.

Former American president Donald Trump’s administration cut off Huawei’s access to US components and technology, including Google’s music and other smartphone services, and later barred vendors worldwide from using US technology to produce components for Huawei.

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