DANDONG, China (AP) – A Canadian entrepreneur was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Wednesday in a spy case linked to Beijing’s efforts to push his country to release an executive from tech giant Huawei, prompting an unusual joint demonstration of support in Canada by the United States and 24 other governments.
China steps up pressure as Canadian judge hears final arguments on whether to send Huawei executive to the United States to face charges related to possible trade sanctions violations against Iran . On Tuesday, a court dismissed another Canadian’s appeal for his sentence in a drug case that was sharply increased to death after the executive’s arrest.
Entrepreneur Michael Spavor and a former Canadian diplomat were arrested in what critics called a “hostage policy” after Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou was arrested on December 1, 2018 at Vancouver Airport.
Spavor was sentenced in a court in Dandong, about 210 miles (340 kilometers) east of Beijing, on the North Korean border. The government has released few details other than accusing Spavor of passing sensitive information on to former diplomat Michael Kovrig from 2017. The two have been isolated and have little contact with Canadian diplomats.
The Canadian government has condemned Spavor’s sentence. He said he and Kovrig were “arbitrarily detained” and called for their immediate release.
The court process in the Spavor case “lacked both fairness and transparency,” Ambassador Dominic Barton said outside a sentencing detention center.
Spavor has two weeks to decide whether to appeal, according to Barton.
“While we disagree with the accusations, we realize this is the next step in the process of bringing Michael home, and we will continue to support him during this difficult time,” said the Spavor’s family in a statement.
“Michael’s life passion has been to bring together different cultures through tourism and shared events between the Korean Peninsula and other countries including China and Canada,” his family said. “This situation did not mitigate, but strengthened his passion.”
Diplomats from the United States, Japan, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and other European countries as well as the European Union gathered at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing to show their support . They also launched separate calls for Spavor and Kovrig to be given a fair trial or to be released.
“These procedures are a blatant attempt to use human beings as a lever for negotiation,” the top US diplomat in China, David Meale, said in a statement. “Human beings should never be used as a bargaining chip.”
Meng, Chief Financial Officer of Huawei Technologies Ltd. and daughter of the company founder, was arrested on charges of lying to the Hong Kong branch of British bank HSBC about possible transactions with Iran in violation of trade sanctions.
Meng’s lawyers argue that the case is politically motivated and that what she is accused of is not a crime in Canada.
The Chinese government has criticized the arrest as part of US efforts to hamper its technological development. Huawei, a maker of network equipment and smartphones, is China’s leading global technology brand and is at the center of U.S.-China tensions over information systems technology and security.
Beijing denies that there is a link between Meng’s case and the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig, but Chinese officials and state media frequently mention the two men as to whether or not Meng is allowed to return to China.
Earlier, Barton said he didn’t think it was a coincidence that the cases in China were occurring as Meng’s case progressed in Vancouver.
When asked if Canada was in the process of negotiating Meng’s eventual return home in exchange for the release of the detained Canadians, Barton said, “There are intensive efforts and discussions. I don’t want to go into detail about this. But it will continue. “
Diplomats from the United States and Germany visited the Dandong detention center but were not allowed entry, according to Barton.
“Our collective presence and voice sends a strong message to China and the Chinese government that the eyes of the world are watching,” the ambassador said.
Barton said Chinese authorities cited photos taken by Spavor at airports with military planes.
“Much of it was around photographic evidence,” the ambassador said. “He obviously had a different point of view on this. “
Spavor worked in China but had strong ties to North Korea in tourism and other business ventures that put him in contact with the leaders of the isolated Communist state. The Canadian Embassy said Spavor was detained for 975 days on Wednesday.
Barton met Spavor after the conviction and said he sent three messages: “Thank you for all your support, it means a lot to me. Two, I’m in a good mood. And three, I want to go home.
“He’s strong, resilient, focused on what’s going on,” Barton said. “We had a great conversation.
Kovrig, who was also arrested in December 2018, went to trial in March. It is not known when a verdict could be announced.
On Tuesday, a Chinese court dismissed the appeal of Robert Schellenberg, whose 15-year prison sentence for drug trafficking was sharply increased to death in January 2019 following Meng’s arrest. The case has been referred to the Supreme Court of China for mandatory review before it can be conducted.
Canada and other countries including Australia and the Philippines face trade boycotts and other Chinese pressure in disputes with Beijing over human rights, coronavirus and sea control from southern China. The United States has warned American travelers of an “increased risk of arbitrary detention” in China for reasons other than law enforcement.
China has tried to pressure the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by imposing restrictions on imports of canola seed oil and other products from Canada.
Meanwhile, Beijing is blocking imports of wheat, wine and other Australian products after its government called for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.
McDonald reported from Beijing. Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Dandong, China, contributed.