DANDONG, China (AP) — A Chinese court sentenced Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison Wednesday in a spying case that has been linked to Beijing’s pressure campaign against the Canadian government over the arrest of an executive at tech giant Huawei.
Spavor and another Canadian were detained in China in what critics labeled “hostage politics” after the executive, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested at the Vancouver airport in late 2018 at the request of U.S. authorities.
A Canadian court will hear final arguments in the next few weeks over whether to hand Meng over to face U.S. criminal charges in connection with possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran.
Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton met with Spavor after his court hearing at a detention center in the city of Dandong, about 210 miles (340 kilometers) east of Beijing on the North Korean border.
The ambassador said Spavor asked to send three messages: “Thank you for all your support, it means a lot to me. Two, I am in good spirits. And three, I want to get home.”
“I have a lot of respect for how he’s handling this,” Barton told journalists after the verdict. “He’s strong, resilient, focused on what’s happening. We had a very good conversation.”
Spavor was also fined 50,000 yuan ($7,700), Barton said.
China has released few details of the charges, other than to allege Spavor was a conduit for intelligence and sensitive information provided to former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig beginning in 2017.
Kovrig also was detained in December 2018 and tried on spying charges, though no word has been given about a verdict. The two have been held in isolation for more than two years with only periodic contact with Canadian Embassy staff.
On Tuesday, a Chinese court rejected the appeal of a third Canadian whose 15-year prison sentence in a drug case was abruptly increased to the death penalty following Meng’s arrest. The case of Robert Schellenberg has been automatically appealed to China’s Supreme Court.
Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Ltd. and daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested Dec. 1, 2018, in Vancouver on U.S. charges of lying to the Hong Kong arm of the British bank HSBC about possible dealings with Iran in violation of trade sanctions.
Meng’s lawyers argue the case is politically motivated and what she is accused of isn’t a crime in Canada.
China’s government has criticized the arrest as part of U.S. efforts to hamper its technology development. Huawei, a maker of network equipment and smartphones, is China’s first global tech brand and is at the center of U.S.-Chinese tension over technology and the security of information systems.
Beijing has repeatedly demanded Meng’s immediate release. While denying a direct connection between her case and the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig, Chinese officials and state media frequently mention the two men’s fates in relation to whether or not Meng is allowed to return to China.
At the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, Deputy Head of Mission Jim Nickel told reporters the timing of the detentions of Spavor and Kovrig and “consistent communications” from the Chinese government “linking them to Ms. Meng” makes clear they were “arbitrarily detained for the purpose of political leverage.”
Barton earlier said he didn’t think it was a coincidence the cases in China were happening while Meng’s case was advancing in Vancouver.
Spavor was based in China but had extensive links with North Korea in tourism and other commercial ventures that brought him into contact with the isolated communist state’s leadership.
Nickel said the Canadian government had complained to China that Spavor’s trial “failed to meet basic standards” of fairness and defendants’ rights.
The news conference at the Canadian Embassy was attended by representatives from 25 countries, including the ambassadors from Britain, Australia and New Zealand and diplomats from the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, the EU, Italy and Sweden.
The Huawei case is one of a series of conflicts between Beijing and other governments over China’s technology ambitions, human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet and territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas.
China has tried to pressure Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government by imposing restrictions on imports of canola seed oil and other products from Canada.
Meanwhile, Beijing is blocking imports of Australian wheat, wine and other products after its government called for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. The disease that has killed more than 4.3 million people was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, although China has suggested it may have originated overseas, a theory that has not been embraced by medical experts.