Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, detained in China almost 3 years, now on plane home

Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are returning to Canada nearly three years after they were arrested in China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday evening.

“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau said in Ottawa. “For the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace.”

Spavor and Kovrig boarded their flight about 7:30 p.m. ET, Trudeau said. They are being accompanied by Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China.

The ‘two Michaels’ were detained in what is widely considered a retaliatory act after the Chinese tech executive Meng Wangzhou was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018, at the request of the U.S. government.

Meng reached a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. government earlier Friday, setting off a quick chain of events that saw her extradition case dropped by a B.C. court and concluded with her departure from the Vancouver airport, also about 7:30 p.m. ET.

China has insisted throughout the legal saga that Spavor and Kovrig were arrested on legitimate grounds, but the timing of their release is sure to bolster Ottawa’s argument that the two men were arbitrarily detained.

Trudeau deflected questions about what the development will mean for the strained relationship between Canada and China. He also did not answer exactly how their release came about.

“There is going to be time for analysis and reflection in the coming days and weeks, but the fact of the matter is, I know Canadians will be incredibly happy to know right now, this Friday night, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are on a plane and they’re coming home,” he told reporters in Parliament’s West Block building.

Timing proves link between cases: former diplomat

Spavor, an entrepreneur who worked in North Korea and China, was found guilty of spying and sentenced to 11 years in prison and extradition by a Chinese court in August.

The trial for Kovrig, a diplomat, concluded in March, but he had not yet been sentenced.

Both men were initially detained on Dec. 10, 2018, 10 days after Meng’s arrest in Vancouver.

Canadian Embassy Charge d’Affaires Jim Nickel, centre, demonstrated alongside other diplomats from Canada’s allies after they were denied entry to Michael Kovrig’s trial in March. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“China … up until now, has said that there’s been no linkage between the two, but by putting them on the plane tonight, they’ve clearly acknowledged that this was hostage-taking,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat for more than 30 years.

“It reminds me of the swaps you used to have of spies in the Cold War.” 

Robertson speculated that U.S. President Joe Biden, who is directing increasing attention to China, may have helped broker the deal during a recent call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trudeau was asked on Friday if he spoke to Xi ahead of the release, but Trudeau said Canadian diplomats were the ones leading the work.

“[I’m] pretty surprised, I must say, because China’s been saying for the last many, many months that the cases were not related,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a member of the Canada-China Forum’s advisory board.

“Of course, we all knew that they were, and now it’s proof that they were.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement that his government welcomes the return of the Spavor and Kovrig “after more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention.”

Meng reaches deferred prosecution agreement

As part of her arrangement with U.S. prosecutors, Meng pleaded not guilty in a court Friday to multiple fraud charges.

The Huawei chief financial officer entered the plea during a virtual appearance in a New York courtroom. She was charged with bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracies to commit bank and wire fraud more than two and a half years ago.

The agreed statement of facts from Friday’s U.S. court appearance said that Meng told a global financial institution that a company operating in Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions was a “local partner” of Huawei when in fact it was a subsidiary of Huawei.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou reads a statement outside the B.C. Supreme Court following the conclusion of her extradition hearing. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

David Kessler, an attorney with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, told the court the deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) will last four years — from the time of her arrest on Dec. 1, 2018, to Dec. 1, 2022.

Meng’s legal battle in Canada played out in stark contrast to the Chinese prosecutions of Spavor and Kovrig, which Canadian officials routinely decried for a lack of transparency.

She also lived under house arrest at a multimillion-dollar home in Vancouver while awaiting extradition. Spavor and Kovrig were held in Chinese prisons during the same period.

Meng read from a prepared statement, following what was likely her last appearance in a B.C. court, in which she thanked the Canadian government “for upholding the rule of law.”

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