Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says intervening to end the extradition case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to secure the release of two Canadians detained in China would “endanger” millions of others overseas.
“We will continue to remain steadfast and strong, and say very clearly in our actions and in our words, that randomly arresting Canadians doesn’t give you leverage over the government of Canada, anywhere in the world,” he said at a press conference in Ottawa Thursday.
Trudeau was pressed about the issue in light of the prominent voices now calling on his government to stop the proceedings against Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, who was arrested in Vancouver in 2018 and whose case is before a B.C. court. The U.S. wants to prosecute Meng for fraud, alleging she lied to banks in Hong Kong to violate sanctions on Iran.
Watch: Intervening to release Meng Wanzhou would put more Canadians at risk, Trudeau says
Nine days after Meng’s arrest, Chinese authorities arrested former diplomat Michel Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — now known as the “two Michaels” — in what was widely seen as payback. The men have been detained for more than 560 days and were charged last week with espionage.
This week, a group of 19 eminent Canadians, including former politicians and diplomats, signed a public letter calling on Trudeau to release Meng to secure the freedom of Kovrig and Spavor, as Beijing has strongly hinted would be possible.
The signatories include former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who have also made their cases in the media this week. Former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, former Tory foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent have also signed on, as has ex-diplomat Robert Fowler, who was taken hostage in 2008 in Niger.
But Trudeau firmly closed the door on tapping Justice Minister David Lametti to put a stop to Meng’s proceedings, which Lametti is empowered to do “at any time” under section 23(3) of the Extradition Act.
The prime minister said he respects but “deeply disagrees” with those who signed the letter, saying that they are seeking to solve a “short-term situation” by creating a precedent China and other countries could exploit again in the future.
“We cannot allow political pressures or random arrests of Canadian citizens to influence the functioning of our justice system. So, I respect these individuals, but they’re wrong in their approach,” he said.
Trudeau stressed the need to “be absolutely crystal clear” that Canada’s justice system is independent of political pressures, whether domestic or foreign.
A reporter asked Trudeau how he might explain his refusal to budge on the issue to the families of Kovrig and Spavor, two men facing the prospects of languishing behind bars for years to come. The prime minister said that while he understands the ordeal is “heart-wrenching,” he must also focus on what will keep Canadians safe in the future.
“It is not just the two Michaels who are at question here. It is every Canadian who travels to China or anywhere else overseas,” he said. “If the Chinese government concludes from this exchange and this interaction that it is an effective way to gain leverage over Canadians and over the Canadian government to randomly arrest Canadians, then no Canadian will be safe going forward.”
He said his government will continue to work “incredibly hard” to bring Kovrig and Spavor home.
The letter to Trudeau, first reported by CBC News, conceded that “it does not sit well with anyone to yield to bullying or blackmail,” but said it is likely the “two Michaels will remain in their Chinese prison until Meng is free to return to China.”
The letter notes the slow pace of Meng’s proceedings in Canada, while Kovrig and Spavor “will be tried in a court that has a 99% conviction rate, leaving no doubt about the jeopardy they face if they remain there.”
Kovrig and Spavor were taken “in direct retaliation” for Meng’s arrest and are being held in conditions “tantamount to torture,” the signatories said in the letter. Both men have been denied access to lawyers, live in cells where the lights are reportedly kept on all night, and haven’t met with Canadian diplomats since January because of what Beijing says are COVID-19 restrictions.
Releasing Meng would allow the Trudeau government to “re-define” its approach to China, the signatories said.
The letter also downplays the potential of angering the U.S. by making such a move.
“Although the American President will no doubt object if we act in our interest instead of his, fear of his retribution cannot be a sound reason for continuing the present, unwise course,” it said. “And Canadians will support your Government if it acts.”
Former Liberal minister presses for action
Rock told The Canadian Press that former prime minister Jean Chretien agrees with him on the issue. Former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley has in the past floated a so-called “prisoner exchange” that would see Meng return to China and the two Michaels come home, according to The Globe and Mail.
In an interview with CBC Radio’s “The Current” Wednesday morning, Rock said Canada should not worry about Trump’s response. He noted that Americans were able to move past Canada’s refusal to join the war in Iraq in 2003.
On the fears of creating a precedent, Rock said China has already “engaged in hostage diplomacy” for many years.
“This is the way the world works. It’s cynical, it’s difficult. But let’s face the reality,” Rock said. “And let’s think of those two Canadians and let’s put this in perspective. The Americans will get over this.”
The prime minister is also facing public pressure from Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, to do more. Nadjibulla told CBC’s “The National,” in an interview that aired Monday, that Lametti can act to end Meng’s extradition.
“Whether the minister should act is a second question,” she said. “And that is a conversation we should be having instead of hiding behind.”
Watch the full interview from CBC:
Kovrig’s father, Bennett, likewise told The Globe and Mail it is time for the government to consider ending Meng’s proceedings.
“China has intimated for a long time that it was only interested in the repatriation of Meng and that it would immediately reciprocate by freeing the two Michaels,” he told the newspaper. “Trudeau keeps repeating that he will not seek such a deal. Yet there is no alternative.”
With files from The Canadian Press and earlier files