The long-awaited court hearings for the two Canadians detained in China for 828 days are set to take place over the next week, the government announced Wednesday.
Former entrepreneur Michael Spavor will appear on March 19, while former diplomat Michael Kovrig will appear on March 22, according to a statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau.
“Canadian officials are seeking continued consular access to Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the China-Canada Consular Agreement, and have also requested to attend the proceedings,” Garneau said in the statement.
He goes on to state that the detentions are “arbitrary” and the government remains “deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings.”
Spavor and Kovrig were detained in China on Dec. 10, 2018 on allegations of state spying, largely seen in the West as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou days prior in Vancouver in connection with a U.S. extradition request.
Garneau’s statement also reinforces the government’s commitment to freeing Spavor and Kovrig.
In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play on Wednesday, following the announcement, Transport Minister and former parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister Omar Alghabra said the situation is a “serious development.”
“We have been condemning China’s arbitrary detention; this is unacceptable. We’ve just been notified by our embassy in Beijing that the dates of the trials have been set,” he said.
When asked if the two men have legal representation there, Alghabra did not directly respond but did say “we’re going to do everything in our power to defend them, to seek their release.”
The conviction rate in criminal charges in China hovers around 99 per cent. Former Canadian Ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques painted a grim picture of the situation on Power Play on Wednesday.
“Because these are high-profile cases, they are supervised by the Chinese Communist Party, we know it’s all preordained. If they are lucky they will be able to see their lawyers probably for about 10 or 20 minutes,” he said.
“They will probably get a harsh sentence.”
A renewed sense of hope for their release was ushered in when U.S. President Joe Biden was elected in, yet his impact in this objective remains to be seen. Senior U.S. officials from the Biden administration will meet with Chinese officials on Thursday for a two-day summit in Anchorage, Alaska.
When Biden and Trudeau held their first face-to-face virtual bilateral meeting on Feb. 23, Biden pledged to help Canada free Spavor and Kovrig and condemned China’s widespread human rights violations.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said at the time. “We’re going to work together until we get their safe return.”
Saint-Jacques said that while he welcomes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s adoption of a firmer tone when speaking about the superpower, he fears efforts to push back are coming too late.
“The government of Mr. Trudeau has been missing in action on this, they should have announced a long time ago that we are going to revise completely our engagement strategy with China. We have to engage with them because it’s too important a country, but at the same time [engagement] has to be a lot more selective,” he said.
He added that Canada’s leverage in the situation remains low, but there’s an opportunity to form a pact with like-minded democratic countries to resist China’s influence on the world stage.
The day before Biden and Trudeau met, MPs in the House of Commons voted to label China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims a genocide, and to call on the federal government to formally adopt that position. The Liberal cabinet abstained from the vote.
Hanging in the balance is Canada’s decision about whether to include Huawei in Canada’s 5G rollout.