06/22/2020 15:10 EDT | Updated 06/22/2020 15:47 EDT

Trudeau: China Highlighted ‘Obvious’ Link Between Meng Wanzhou Case And Detained Canadians

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the charges against Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are “completely groundless.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it has long been “obvious” that the detention of two Canadians in China is linked to the Vancouver arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, doubling down on comments a Chinese official called “irresponsible” hours earlier.

Speaking to reporters at his daily briefing in Ottawa Monday, Trudeau said that within the first days of the detention of former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor in December 2018, Chinese officials were “highlighting a link” to Meng’s arrest by the RCMP nine days earlier.

“It has been obvious from the beginning that this was a political decision made by the Chinese government and we deplore it and have from the very beginning,” he said.

Adrian Wyld/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on June 22, 2020.

Spying charges against Kovrig and Spavor, who have been held for more than 18 months, were announced Friday. Kovrig and Spavor have been denied access to lawyers and their family, and live in cells where the lights are reportedly kept on day and night. Canadian diplomats have also been prevented from visiting the men since January because of what Beijing says are COVID-19 restrictions.

Last week, Trudeau reiterated his position that the so-called “two Michaels” were being arbitrarily detained because of the independent judicial proceedings involving Meng, who is fighting an extradition request to the United States while living in a Vancouver mansion. The U.S. wants to prosecute Meng for fraud, alleging she lied to banks in Hong Kong about her company’s connections with Iran, in possible violation of U.S. sanctions. Meng is the daughter of Huawei’s founder.

The prime minister said Friday “Chinese authorities have directly linked the case of the two Michaels to the judicial proceedings against Ms. Meng,” something he called disappointing because “there obviously are no links except in politics.” He would not answer when a reporter asked if he feels the men are being held hostage.

AP via CP
Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained in China, are shown in these 2018 images taken from video.

Earlier Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian blasted Trudeau’s remarks, saying there “is no such thing” as arbitrary detention.“China urges the relevant Canadian leader to earnestly respect the spirit of the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks,” Zhao said.

But while speaking to reporters, Trudeau repeatedly accused China of using arbitrary detentions “as a means to advance political gains,” saying that is something that the rest of the world needs to stand united against. The prime minister thanked “so many of our friends and steadfast allies around the world” for speaking out against the practice.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement Monday saying Canada’s neighbour is “extremely concerned” by the formal charges against Kovrig and Spavor, calling them “completely groundless” and politically motivated.

Pompeo: Charges against 2 Canadians ‘completely groundless’

“The United States stands with Canada in calling on Beijing for the immediate release of the two men and rejects the use of these unjustified detentions to coerce Canada,” Pompeo said in the statement. 

“Additionally, we echo Canada’s call for immediate consular access to its two citizens, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as China has prohibited such access for almost six months, and the world has no knowledge of the two Canadians’ condition.”

Trudeau denied suggestions that he has not been forceful or outraged enough on the issue, after a reporter noted he typically says he is disappointed by developments involving Kovrig and Spavor. The prime minister said his government has highlighted “deep level of concern and disagreement” with China, both publicly and privately, while stressing the independence of Canada’s judicial system.

“We work behind the scenes and in public to ensure that everyone understands that we will continue to work extremely hard to get these Candians home,” he said.

Trudeau was also unequivocal that his government is not considering cutting a deal to stop Meng’s extradition case in order to try to secure the release of Kovrig and Spavor. 

Former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley has publicly floated the idea of  a “prisoner exchange” that would see Meng return to China and the two Michaels come home, according to The Globe and Mail.

“Canada has a strong and independent justice system, we will ensure that it goes through its proper forces,” Trudeau said when asked about the possibility of a “trade” between Meng and the two Michaels.

“And anyone who’s considering weakening our values or weakening the independence of our justice system, doesn’t understand the importance of standing strong on our principles and our values.” 

In late May, a B.C. Supreme Court judge shot down an attempt by Meng’s legal team to have her extradition case tossed out.

With files from The Canadian Press