Chinese authorities have formally arrested two Canadians who have been held in detention for five months on suspicion of espionage, in a move likely to increase tension between Ottawa and Beijing.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were detained on December 10, accused of gathering and stealing “sensitive information and other intelligence” since 2017.
Their detainment came shortly after the arrest of a Chinese executive in Vancouver, a move which infuriated Beijing and sparked a diplomatic crisis.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday the arrest of Kovrig and Spavor had been approved by “Chinese prosecutorial authorities” and asked Canada to stop “making irresponsible remarks on China’s rule of law.”
“Michael Kovrig was recently arrested for spying on state secrets and intelligence for foreign entities, and Michael Spavor was recently arrested for stealing and unlawfully providing state secrets to foreign entities,” Lu said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously called for the immediate release of both Kovrig and Spavor, describing their detentions as “arbitrary.”
China’s move to detain the two men was widely interpreted in Canada as retaliation for the country’s decision to arrest Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Meng was taken into custody on December 1, 2018, in Vancouver on behalf of the United States on charges of working to evade Iran sanctions.
The Chinese government has repeatedly protested Meng’s detention, saying the arrest was political. At her latest court hearing on May 9, her lawyers reiterated that she was innocent and called the arrest “an unlawful abuse of process.”
Speaking in March, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that both Canada and the US had “abused their bilateral extradition treaty and took forced actions on a Chinese citizen.”
Meng is currently under house arrest in Vancouver and is facing extradition to the US.
Spavor and Korvig, meanwhile, have been held in a detention facility, its location undisclosed to the public, with only occasional visits from Canadian embassy staff.
Both Canadians have a long history of working in China. Former diplomat Kovrig is northeast Asia senior adviser for the nonprofit organization, the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Spavor is the founder of Paektu Cultural Exchange, a company that helps facilitate trips to North Korea. Spavor had previously assisted former NBA player Dennis Rodman in travel to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The formal arrest of the two men raises the possibility of them facing trial, though no date has been set.
Their ongoing detainment in China has led to calls inside of Canada for the country to take a tougher line with Beijing.
In a strongly-worded speech in early May, Canadian opposition leader Andrew Scheer said the relationship with China needed a “total reset.”
“So long as China is willing to hold our exports hostage, all the while committing human rights violations on an industrial scale, we have no choice as Canadians but consider other trade partners,” he was quoted as saying.