The Canadian Mountie cut an eye-catching figure, his red serge tunic standing out among the ranks of white tombstones at Hong Kong’s Sai Wan War Cemetery.
The annual ceremony to remember the sacrifices made by Canadian troops in the 1941 battle of Hong Kong is a solemn affair. But the Chinese Canadian officer who stood with his head bowed before the cenotaph at the service on December 3, 2017, was a popular presence, mingling afterward with guests who included Kathleen Wynne, then the premier of Ontario, and posing for photographs with veterans and their families.
The man in scarlet was Royal Canadian Mounted Police Staff Sergeant Ben Chang.
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He is once again the centre of attention – but for very different reasons.
Chang has been cast as a key figure in the Canadian extradition case of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou, and central to her lawyers’ claim that she is the victim of covert evidence-gathering orchestrated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Tuesday marks the second anniversary of Meng’s arrest at Vancouver’s airport that threw China’s relations with Canada into turmoil.
Notes taken by a police colleague suggest that Chang sent information about Meng’s cellphones and electronic devices to the FBI, although the Canadian government lawyers representing the US deny this. In a sworn affidavit, Chang also denies the handover.
Although a series of witnesses have appeared in the Supreme Court of British Columbia over the past fortnight to describe their interactions with Chang, he is refusing to testify himself, having retired from the RCMP to live in the Chinese territory of Macau.
Canada’s Department of Justice said in a court filing in June that it had fears for Chang’s safety; following Meng’s arrest, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained by China and accused of espionage, in what Ottawa has described as hostage diplomacy.
Chang’s path to Macau has been unclear.
But the South China Morning Post has learned that Chang served as the RCMP’s liaison officer in Hong Kong, from 2014 to 2018. The posting put him among an elite group of RCMP officers scattered in 26 countries and territories around the world.
Chang’s Hong Kong posting helps explain how he ended up working in the nearby Chinese gambling mecca as the assistant vice-president for security at the Galaxy casino. Former police officers are a common presence on the security staff of Macau casinos, and Chang’s fellow executives at Galaxy include at least one former member of the Hong Kong police tactical unit.
Andrew Work, president of the Canadian Club of Hong Kong, said he was familiar with Chang from his presence at the cemetery and Canada Day events. “You very rarely see those liaison guys … but he [Chang] was very friendly at these events,” said Work.
Work said that Chang worked out of the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong.
Work likened the public role of an RCMP liaison officer in Hong Kong to that of a “mascot”, posing for pictures in their iconic dress uniform.
Photos of Chang taking part in the war cemetery service, taken for Canada’s Hong Kong consulate, were obtained by the South China Morning Post. The man in the photos matches a profile picture on a recruitment profile in Chang’s name.
A deleted posting on a website for the 1st Hong Kong Canadian Scout Group, still visible in cached form, said that Chang visited the troupe in 2015 “to give us a talk about his work and the responsibilities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and how Canada carried its peacekeeping role in different parts of the world”.
But there is a more serious side to the duties of RCMP foreign liaison officers. While they have no jurisdiction abroad, they serve as a link between foreign police and Canadian officers in international investigations, ranging from terrorism and money laundering to sex-trafficking cases and conducting intelligence checks.
Nothing is known of Chang’s part in any investigations in Hong Kong, but a 2014 auditor general’s report on liaison officers’ duties suggested that his predecessor in Hong Kong, Rico Wong, was involved in a global investigation into a 2013 terrorist attack in Algeria.
In the year he was posted to Hong Kong, Chang was one of just 42 RCMP liaison officers around the world, each costing on average C$500,000 (US$385,000) a year to maintain, the audit report said.
The RCMP did not respond to the Post’s request for details about Chang’s current circumstances or career.
But he was posted to Hong Kong in mid-2014, a source who requested anonymity said. Before that, news reports indicate that he worked for a drug unit in British Columbia.
Safety fears and a swirl of evidence
Chang left Hong Kong in 2018, and by the end of the year he was in charge of the RCMP’s financial integrity unit, where he was drawn into the arrest of Meng and the controversy over her electronic devices.
The devices were seized by Canadian border officers during an immigration examination, then handed over to the RCMP when she was arrested hours later.
The handling of the devices and their information may be crucial to Meng. Her lawyers say their seizure violated her rights, because it occurred before Meng was told she was about to be arrested and offered the opportunity to seek legal counsel.
They claim the alleged violation was exacerbated because it occurred at the orchestration by the FBI.
The Americans had asked for the devices to be place in special Mylar bags designed to prevent the electronics being remotely wiped, a fact the Canadian government’s lawyers do not dispute. But they say that neither the devices nor data from or about them were ever actually sent to the FBI.
US authorities want Meng extradited to New York to face trial for fraud, accusing her of lying to a HSBC official about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran, and thus putting the bank at risk of breaching US sanctions on the Middle East country. She denies the charges.
In a December 4, 2018, email Chang wrote to one of the RCMP officers directly involved in Meng’s arrest, Constable Gurvinder Dhaliwal, asking him to secure her device data for an FBI official.
“I just spoke with [FBI] Legat John Sgroi. They are requesting the descriptions and lists of the devices (with ESN# make model) we seized from MENG. Can you please go through your exhibits and acquire those for me.” ESN refers to a device’s electronic serial number.
Dhaliwal would forward the information to Chang as requested. It is Chang’s handling of the information after that which Meng’s lawyers have put under the spotlight.
December 12, 2018, notes by RCMP Sergeant Janice Vander Graaf say she was told by Dhaliwal that Chang had sent the information to the FBI. Yet in an affidavit, dated October 2019, Chang denies this ever took place.
“I did not share with the FBI or other US authorities any information (including identifying details) obtained from the electronic devices seized from Ms Meng,” he swore. Not only that, Chang said he was “never asked for the identifying information by Mr Sgroi … or any other member of the FBI”.
The apparent contradiction between that statement and the December 4 email has not been explained.
Dahiliwal testified he had no independent recollection of the conversation described in Vander Graaf’s notes; Vander Graaf said she was concerned by the conversation but after reviewing emails became satisfied that Dhaliwal must have been mistaken.
She denied claims by Meng’s lawyer Scott Fenton that she was engaging in a cover-up and tailoring her evidence to protect the RCMP.
As for Chang, he remains an enigmatic figure, amid the swirl of evidence surrounding him.
His refusal to appear as a witness, announced by Meng’s lead lawyer Richard Peck on the first day of the recent hearings, was a stunning moment in the case. “There may be any number of consequences from his refusal to testify,” Peck said on November 16.
No explanation for Chang’s absence was given in court.
But a June court filing by Canada’s Department of Justice revealed that “witness safety” fears were held for Macau-based Chang. His employment at the Galaxy casino was then reported by The Globe and Mail newspaper.
Unlike serving officers involved in Meng’s extradition case, who are being represented by lawyers from Canada’s Department of Justice, Chang has opted to retain outside counsel, Vancouver lawyer Joseph Saulnier.
Saulnier said he would forward questions from the Post to his client. But he added: “I anticipate we won’t have any comment for now.”
Meng’s extradition hearings resume on December 7.
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