Crisis Group Chiefs Urge China to Free Canadian Held for Year

Bloomberg News

(Bloomberg) -- Former and current International Crisis Group chiefs urged China to free a Canadian analyst ahead of his year anniversary in jail, a case that has strained ties between Beijing and Ottawa and fanned fears among business travelers.

President Robert Malley and three of his predecessors called for the immediate release of Michael Kovrig -- a Hong Kong-based analyst for the Brussels-based research group and a former Canadian diplomat -- in a commentary published Wednesday in the Washington Post. The executives argued that Kovrig’s detention by secret police on Dec. 10, 2018, undercut efforts to better understand China at a time of growing global criticism.

“Michael’s unjust detention comes at a particularly sensitive time in terms of China’s role in the world,” the authors including Louise Arbour, Gareth Evans and Jean-Marie Guehenno said. “When China violates the rights of a foreigner on its soil, and when it does so with such a thinly disguised ulterior motive, it inevitably has a chilling effect on all those who would like to engage Beijing, whether in diplomacy, business or other mutually beneficial interaction.”

Kovrig was detained in China along with Michael Spavor -- a fellow Canadian who had organized trips to North Korea -- days after Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wangzhou was arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver in response to a U.S. extradition request. The pair were formally arrested on charges related to the theft of state secrets in May and remain in secret detention, without access to family members or lawyers.

China hasn’t denied a link between the detentions and Huawei, saying only that the Canadians are being held “in accordance with the law” and urging Ottawa to correct its “mistake” in arresting Meng. While there have been signs of easing tensions between the two sides, Meng’s case continues to advance and Beijing has given little indication they might release Kovrig or Spavor.

The cases are among a spate of recent detentions that have fueled concerns about foreigners visiting China as tensions build with the U.S. and its allies over trade and security issues. The U.K. last month accused Chinese authorities of torturing a former Hong Kong consulate worker detained after a visit to the mainland while Australia on Monday denounced as “unacceptable” the treatment of an Chinese-Australian writer held on suspicion of espionage.

‘Lawfully Protected’

Kovrig, who is on leave from the Canadian foreign service, has been questioned about his work as a diplomat, according to people familiar with the discussions. Such questioning may be a violation of Article 39 of the Vienna Convention, which was signed by China and covers the past work of former diplomats.

“The legitimate rights of the Canadians are lawfully protected, and the cases shall be free of foreign interference,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in response to a question about the cases in August.

Meng, who’s under house arrest during her extradition proceedings related to U.S. allegations that she violated American sanctions against Iran, thanked her supporters on the first anniversary of her detention. “It was never my intention to be stuck here for so long, but I suddenly find that a whole year has snuck by, and here I still am,” she said in a letter posted on Huawei’s website Sunday.

The Crisis Group op-ed contrasted Meng’s treatment with that of Kovrig, who hasn’t yet had a court appearance and is allowed only monthly consular visits. Bloomberg News reported last year that he and Spavor were questioned multiple times a day and unable to turn off the lights in their cells.

“Michael Kovrig’s detention is unjust and inhumane,” Malley and the others wrote. “It should not have lasted one hour, let alone one year. China should set him free.”

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