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Canada-China detention feud reopened after claims of ‘unwitting’ espionage



A simmering diplomatic feud prompted by China’s detention of two Canadian citizens has been reopened after one of the men claimed he was arrested for unknowingly passing on intelligence to Canada and its allies.

The Globe and Mail reported Michael Spavor is seeking a multi-million dollar settlement from Canada’s federal government, alleging he “unwittingly” provided intelligence on North Korea to fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, who then shared that information with Canada and Five Eyes allies.

The two men were arrested in 2018 shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was detained in Canada in connection with possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran. Chinese officials said Spavor – who lived near the North Korean border and arranged cultural exchanges – was supplying intelligence to Kovrig, who took leave from working as a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing from 2012 to 2014 to take a job at the International Crisis Group. At the time, the arrests of “the two Michaels” drew accusations of “hostage diplomacy” by Canada and its allies.

In August 2021, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of spying. Kovrig’s verdict, after a secret trial in the March, was never announced. The two men were freed by China in September of that year, after Meng Wanzhou reached a deal with US prosecutors and was released, capping a standoff that lasted more than 1,000 days.

Following Spavor’s claims over the weekend, China’s embassy in Ottawa reiterated its claims the men were “suspected of committing crimes endangering China’s national security”.

“Recent relevant reports once again prove that the above facts cannot be denied,” the embassy said Sunday. “Canada’s hyping up of so-called ‘arbitrary detention’ by China is purely a thief crying ‘Stop, thief!’ and fully exposes Canada’s hypocrisy.”

But Spavor’s allegations have prompted outright denials from Canada and mixed reactions from experts.

In a statement to the Guardian, the global affairs department said the detention of the two men was “unjust and unacceptable” and their trials “did not satisfy even the minimum standards” under international law.

“Perpetuating the notion that either Michael was involved in espionage is only perpetuating a false narrative under which they were detained by China,” said John Babcock, a spokesperson for the ministry.

“Since their release from arbitrary detention, the government of Canada has remained committed to supporting them both to rebuild their lives following this difficult ordeal. Both men are free to speak about their experience of their arbitrary detention in China. Due to privacy considerations, no further information can be disclosed.”

At the centre of the allegations is Kovrig’s work with Canada’s global security reporting program (GSRP) “which generates focused diplomatic reporting on security and stability issues in countries of strategic interest to Canada”. These reports are not secret and are read within the foreign affairs ministry and with partner departments.

On social media, former ambassador Kerry Buck, who also served assistant deputy minister for international security, called Spavor’s allegations “ridiculous”.

“GSRP diplomats write diplomatic reports. As with all diplomatic reports, they are read by people in Ottawa, including the CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service]. Some of those reports provide information CSIS and others might like. In no world does this make GSRP diplomats ‘spies’.”

Stephanie Carvin, a professor of internal relations at Carleton University says despite the global affairs ministry’s denial that Kovrig was working as a spy, he was still collecting intelligence – and Canada needs to understand how that work might be viewed by other countries.

“The reality is the way we talk about intelligence is changing. There’s a lot of discussion about open source intelligence. It might not be from clandestine sources, but it’s still intelligence – and we need to treat it that way.”

But she points that at the time of his arrest, Kovrig was no longer working for global affairs and was no longer providing reports through the GSRP, one of the country’s “least well-known” government divisions.

“China’s detention of the Michaels was arbitrary and it was wrong. But it also highlights the consequences of Canada’s indecision of whether or not it wants to have a foreign human intelligence agency,” said Carvin.

“Canada may not want an MI6, but it also wants information from people living overseas about the countries they are living in. The resulting uncertainty creates a significant amount of risk for GSRP officers [like Kovrig] and the individuals they speak with.”

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