Kovrig clings to humour as ‘two Michaels’ near one year in Chinese prison

Canadian prisoner Michael Kovrig is trying to hold on to a sense of humour as he and fellow countryman Michael Spavor approach one year in solitary confinement in China, says Kovrig’s current boss.

Kovrig, a diplomat on leave who was working with the International Crisis Group, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, have been imprisoned in China since Dec. 10, 2018. Their detention is widely viewed as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou on Dec. 1, 2018.

Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, was arrested at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to face fraud charges for allegedly violating sanctions against Iran.

The incident triggered a diplomatic meltdown between Canada and China, that has also led to the People’s Republic banning some Canadian agricultural products, including canola.

Meng is out on bail and living in a luxury Vancouver home, as her extradition hearing remains before a British Columbia court.

On the one-year anniversary of her arrest, Huawei posted a message from Meng in which she described feeling tormented and helpless, amid long periods of reading novels and oil painting, while watching the dense forests outside her window change to crimson.

READ MORE: New foreign minister presses for Canadian detainees with China counterpart

Robert Malley, the president of the Washington-based Crisis Group, said he wishes Meng no ill-will but that there’s no comparison between how she and Kovrig and Spavor are being treated.

Kovrig and Spavor have been allowed approximately one consular visit per month by Canadian diplomats. But they have been denied access to lawyers, and all others.

Malley said he hopes Kovrig can at least receive a bit better treatment from their Chinese jailers. And he said that wish extends to Spavor, who has no connection to his organization. The Crisis Group has focused exclusively on the case of Kovrig, who was a specialist on China for the think-tank, and had conducted high-level interviews with Chinese officials over numerous visits.

“I don’t think anyone is expecting they will improve to the point that Ms. Meng is experiencing,” he said. “That would probably be an unrealistic expectation. But at least that he be treated fairly and that he have access to family members, to lawyers, to others and that he could live a little bit more normally than he is today.”

Malley said Kovrig is showing uncommon resilience as he lives in isolation, deprived of contact from his loved ones.

“All of that, obviously, would be taxing on anyone. I do have to say that the way Michael is reacting is nothing short of extraordinary. Maintaining his sense of humour, his sense of perspective, his desire to remain interested in things that are going on around the world.”

Malley offered no other details.

China accuses the two men of spying, while the Canadian government has branded their detentions as arbitrary. There appears to be little movement in the stalemate. China’s new ambassador recently held firm to his country’s hardline position, saying the tension between the two countries could be easily dealt with if Canada simply released Meng.

READ MORE: Huawei’s Meng ‘no longer fears unknown’ despite ‘torment, struggle’ of last year

Malley, who previously served on former U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security council, said Kovrig’s fate is wrapped up in events outside his and Canada’s control.

China and the Trump administration are embroiled in an acrimonious trade negotiation and the U.S. has also banned Huawei from supplying the equipment for its next generation 5G wireless network. The U.S. views the technology as an extension of Chinese military intelligence — an allegation the company denies as baseless.

Canada hasn’t decided whether to allow Huawei to be its 5G supplier, but it is under pressure from the U.S. to block the company. Doing so could anger China even further.

Malley said he always viewed Kovrig winning his freedom as “a function of other factors — the relationship between Canada and the U.S. and China — and that is something that is not under our control.”

“Did I think a year ago, Michael would still be behind bars? Probably not. Again, it’s something that is so much in the hands of the Chinese authorities based on their assessment of how best they assess the relationship with the United States in particular, and the question of Huawei and their CFO.”

On Friday, Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole accused the Trudeau government of achieving “zero progress” on winning the release of Kovrig and Spavor as their one-year anniversary approached.

Asked to assess the government’s efforts, Malley replied:

“They have tried everything they can to get him out. I can’t ask for more.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


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