US supports 2 Canadians marking 1,000th day in Chinese cells

OTTAWA, Ontario (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that “people are not bargaining chips,” adding the U.S. stands with Canada in calling for the release of two Canadians detained in China for 1,000 days.

Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in China in what many countries label “hostage politics” after Canada arrested an executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei in 2018 on a U.S. extradition request.

Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave to an international organization, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, were arrested in apparent retaliation. Both have since been convicted of spying in closed Chinese courts — a process that Canada and dozens of allies say amounts to arbitrary detention.

“Today marks the 1,000th day of the arbitrary detention of Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig by the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” Blinken said in a statement. “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada and the international community in calling for the PRC to release, immediately and unconditionally, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.”

He added: “The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable. People should never be used as bargaining chips.”

The arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, infuriated Beijing, which sees her case as a political move designed to prevent China’s rise. The U.S. accuses Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company called Skycom to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Spavor’s and Kovrig’s relatives and supporters are pushing for some sort of political resolution that could bring them home.

They staged a march in Ottawa on Sunday seeking to replicate the 7,000 steps that Kovrig has tried to walk every day in his cramped jail cell to maintain his physical and mental well-being.

“It’s an extremely difficult milestone, but one that we want to mark in this way, in part, to honor the strength and resilience that Michael and Michael Spavor have shown,″ Kovrig’s former wife, Vina Nadjibulla, said.

Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison on national security charges. China’s government has released few details other than to accuse Spavor of passing along sensitive information to Kovrig. Both have been held in isolation and have had little contact with Canadian diplomats.

“We worry about him, but we find strength from all the support we get,” said Paul Spavor, his brother.

China says Spavor and Kovrig committed serious crimes against its national security and, although denying a direct link with Meng’s case, routinely mention her when referring to the detention of Canadians in the country.

The Chinese Embassy in Canada on Sunday protested comments by Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau referring to arbitrary detention and a lack of transparency in the Chinese judicial process.

Those remarks “grossly infringed on China’s judicial sovereignty and violated the spirit of the rule of law,” the embassy’s statement said.

Three Canadians convicted in separate drug cases were sentenced to death in 2019. In one, Robert Schellenberg had received a 15-year sentence initially that was abruptly increased to death in January 2019 following Meng’s arrest.

Canada and other countries face trade boycotts and other Chinese pressure in disputes with Beijing over human rights, the coronavirus and control of the South China Sea. The U.S. has warned American travelers face a “heightened risk of arbitrary detention” in China for reasons other than to enforce laws.

China has tried to pressure Canada’s government by imposing restrictions on imports of canola seed oil and other products.

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