China ‘giving detained Canadians Kovrig and Spavor better food’ during coronavirus

Sarah Zheng

Beijing said it was providing better food and allowing more deliveries during the coronavirus outbreak for two Canadians detained in China on spying charges that were seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Chinese telecoms executive.

The Chinese embassy in Canada said it had also allowed Canadian former diplomat Michael Kovrig – held by police since December 2018 along with Canadian businessman Michael Spavor – to speak to his “very ill” father by telephone for “humanitarian reasons”, Canadian media reported.

“The authorities have provided better food for all the detainees, including Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, so as to help strengthen their immunity,” the embassy’s statement said. “Second, given the relevant detention centres have been totally enclosed due to the epidemic, to ensure their contacts with the Canadian consular agencies in China, the frequency of transference of letters and parcels to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor has been increased as interim arrangements.”

Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the Canadian government’s diplomatic department, has called for the pair to be released immediately from “arbitrary detention”, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the embassy’s remarks.

The latest developments for the two men came amid tightened travel restrictions in China over the coronavirus pandemic, which spread from the central province of Hubei in December and has caused more than 160,000 infections in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Kovrig and Spavor have been detained in China since their arrest in mid-December 2018, days after Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms company Huawei, on a US extradition request.

Relations between Ottawa and Beijing have plunged over what has been seen as China’s retaliatory detention of the two Canadians, but tensions have seemed to thaw through their cooperation over the coronavirus. Chinese state media lauded Canadian support and donations to China during the outbreak, and the World Health Organisation’s joint mission to China for the coronavirus was headed by Canadian epidemiologist Bruce Aylward.

Canada sends delegation to China to press for release of detained citizens

But China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, said this month that while the cooperation was “appreciated”, the “outstanding issue for the bilateral relationship” remained.

Meng has been released on bail ahead of the next hearing of her court case, scheduled in late April, on charges of bank fraud and violating US sanctions. Meanwhile, both Kovrig and Spavor remain in detention with limited consular access, with reports that the two were being held in cells with lights on for 24 hours a day and Kovrig was being denied access to his reading glasses.

GAC had said the two detainees were being allowed monthly visits from Canadian consular officials, but it has not reported new visits for the past two months as the coronavirus has spread across China and abroad. The last reported consular visits were on January 13 for Spavor and January 14 for Kovrig.

Case of detained Canadians sends chill through diplomats in China

The think tank International Crisis Group, which employed Kovrig as an analyst at the time of his detention, has called daily on social media for his release, writing on Monday: “Imagine being locked up in a Chinese prison for 462 days. You cannot see your family. No justifiable reason has been given. This is what our Canadian friend and colleague Michael Kovrig is facing.”

China’s embassy in Canada said in its statement, released last Friday, that Chinese authorities had ensured Kovrig and Spavor “received adequate humanitarian treatment [like] other suspects of the same kind”.

“Both of them are physically sound and mentally stable,” the embassy said. “Their lawful rights are fully protected.”

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