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Two Canadians who were detained in China have been freed following the release of Huawei boss Meng Wanzhou in a years-long saga that many countries have labelled “hostage politics”.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China in December 2018, days after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer in Vancouver, on an American extradition request based on charges that the Chinese tech giant had breached American sanctions in Iran.
While Ms Wanzhou was permitted to remain under house arrest – living in her multimillion-dollar home in Vancouver – as court proceedings played out between China, the US and Canada, for nearly three years, the Canadians were held in a Chinese prison on charges of espionage.
Mr Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, had been working for a think-tank when he was detained.
Mr Spavor, an entrepreneur, had been living in Dandong when he was arrested, working to facilitate investment and tourism in North Korea.
On Friday evening, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced that the two Canadians, known as “the two Michaels”, would be arriving in Canada early Saturday morning.
“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” he said.
“For the past 1,000 days, they have shown great strength, perseverance, resilience and grace.”
Mr Trudeau did not directly say how their release would impact Canada’s strained relationship with China, nor was he specific about 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.”
The Canadians were released after Ms Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, reached a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in the US, which led the Justice Department to drop their request for extradition from Canada.
Ms Meng had been accused of misleading banks into processing transactions for Huawei that violated conditions of American sanctions against Iran.
Appearing in a Brooklyn courtroom on Friday afternoon by video link, the Huawei executive plead not guilty to multiple fraud charges but agreed to accept responsibility for misrepresenting the company’s business dealings in Iran.
She said that she told HSBC that Skycom, a company operating in Iran in violation of US sanctions, was a “local partner” of Huawei, rather than a subsidiary of the Chinese firm.
In exchange, the Justice Department agreed to drop charges of fraud against Ms Meng in December 2022 – four years after she was first arrested – as long as she does not contest any of the US government’s factual allegations within the case.
Following the agreement, Nicole Boeckmann, the acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York said that the CFO’s admissions confirmed that she made “multiple material misrepresentations” regarding the firm’s dealings in Iran, in order to preserve the company’s baking relationship with HSBC.
“Meng’s admissions confirm the crux of the government’s allegations in the prosecution of this financial fraud – that Meng and her fellow Huawei employees engaged in a concerted effort to deceive global financial institutions, the US government and the public about Huawei’s activities in Iran,” she said in a statement.
The US Justice Department has said that it will continue to prepare for a trial against Huawei, which remains on a trade blacklist over concerns that the company’s products could facilitate Chinese spying.
Following her video link court appearance, Ms Meng attended the British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver, where Justice Heather Holmes approved the request to withdraw the extradition order.
Outside the court, Ms Meng read a statement. “Over the last three years my life has been turned upside down,” she said.
“It was a disruptive time for me as a mother, a wife and as a company executive. But I believe every cloud has a silver lining. It really was an invaluable experience in my life. I will never forget all the good wishes I received.
Ms Meng also thanked the Canadian government for upholding the rule of law, expressed her gratitude to the Canadian people, and apologised “for the inconvenience” she caused.
Shortly thereafter, she boarded an Air China flight for Shenzhen, China.
Since December 2018, China has insisted that the charges against the two Michaels were unrelated to Ms Meng’s arrest, but the timing of their release bolster’s Canada’s suggestion that the Canadians had been arbitrarily detained.
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, told Canada’s public broadcaster the CBC: “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.”
“It reminds me of the swaps you used to have of spies in the Cold War,” he said.
Former diplomat and president of the Canadian International Council, Ben Rowswell, added that the detention of the two Canadians set a “terrible precedent”.
“One can only hope, the fact that it didn’t get what they wanted – Meng Wanzhou was not free for these three years – and based on the really large international coalition of countries that came together to condemn China, that they will think hard about practicing such hostage diplomacy a second time.”
Earlier this year, more than 65 countries came together to support Canada’s Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State relations.