By Amanda Coletta

September 25, 2021

-The Washington Post


TORONTO — Two Canadian men imprisoned in China for 1,020 days in what Western officials have decried as a blatant display of “hostage diplomacy” landed in Canada early Saturday.

The two men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — known as the “two Michaels” — could be seen disembarking in the dark from a passenger plane in Calgary, hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that the pair were on their way home “after an unbelievably difficult ordeal.” He met them on the tarmac.

The release of the “two Michaels” came shortly after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, reached a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that allowed her to return to China in exchange for acknowledging some wrongdoing in a criminal case.

Canadian officials arrested Meng, 49, in Vancouver in December 2018, at the behest of U.S. officials who sought her extradition on bank and wire fraud charges related to allegations that she misled a bank about Huawei’s relationship with a subsidiary in Iran. Several days later, China detained Kovrig and Spavor in what was widely seen as retaliation — and sent relations between Ottawa and Beijing into a sharp nosedive.

Trudeau, whose minority government was returned to office this week after a snap election, said in Ottawa that Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, a businessman, had boarded a plane leaving China at 7:30 p.m. Ottawa time Friday. They were accompanied by Canada’s ambassador to China.

“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau said. “For the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace, and we are all inspired by that.”

The prime minister, whose handling of the dispute has drawn critics from all sides of Canada’s political spectrum, said that there would be time to analyze his country’s relationship with China in the “coming days and weeks.”

Although China has repeatedly denied suggestions that there was a connection between Meng’s arrest and the detention of the two Canadians, a spokesman for Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said last year that releasing Meng could “open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians.”

“By putting them on the plane tonight, they’ve clearly acknowledged that this was hostage-taking,” Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, told a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news program. “And that’s something we’re going to have to be conscious of going forward.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that he welcomed the release of the two Canadians after “more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention.”

Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the state-run Global Times tabloid in China called Meng’s return symbolic progress toward a thawing of China’s relations with the United States and Canada. “After this, businesspeople on international trips should not be arrested for political reasons,” he wrote on social media. Chinese state media remained silent, however, about the release of the two Michaels.

Kovrig and Spavor had been held in separate Chinese prisons on vague charges of espionage and stealing state secrets, allegations for which China has not provided evidence. They were not given a bail hearing.

The two men were cut off from the outside world, allowed a handful of phone calls — combined — with their families. Kovrig passed the time by walking 7,000 steps in circles inside his cramped cell every day.

The two Michaels were tried separately in March in secret proceedings. Canadian diplomats were barred from attending them, in violation of a consular agreement between the two countries. A Chinese court found Spavor guilty in August and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. A verdict for Kovrig had not been announced before his release.

Meng, who appeared in a Brooklyn courtroom by video link, pleaded not guilty to bank and wire fraud charges Friday. She agreed to a statement of facts that said that she misled a bank about Huawei’s relationship with a subsidiary, effectively tricking the bank into clearing transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

U.S. prosecutors said they would defer prosecution of the charges and drop them by Dec. 1, 2022, if Meng complied with the terms of the agreement. She did not have to pay a fine.

The deferred prosecution agreement is a “great deal” for Meng and a “bad deal” for the United States that “can only be justified by the humanitarian concern for Kovrig and Spavor,” said Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University, adding that the arrangement rewarded China for “hostage diplomacy.”

Such agreements are often used when the beneficiary is cooperating with prosecutors or has admitted wrongdoing by paying a fine, he said. Neither appeared to have happened in Meng’s case, and because she was allowed to return to China from Canada, there was no threat of further prosecution to prevent potential future wrongdoing by her.

Chinese state media celebrated Meng’s return as a victory for Beijing’s diplomatic clout. Her release came after the “untiring efforts of the Chinese government,” wrote the official Xinhua News Agency.

In a letter written from the plane, Meng returned the sentiment. “Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, our motherland is becoming more glorious; without the might of the motherland, I would not have today’s freedom,” she wrote, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

China has cast the case against Meng as political in nature and part of a U.S. plot to hinder the country’s ascendance. But her comfortable bail conditions — she enjoyed painting lessons at home and private shopping trips at Vancouver boutiques — drew unfavorable comparisons here with the circumstances in which the Michaels were being held.

Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, had been out on $8 million bail — staying at the slightly larger of her two multimillion-dollar mansions in Vancouver — while she was fighting extradition to the United States. On Friday, the Justice Department withdrew its request, and a judge in Vancouver dismissed the proceedings and vacated Meng’s bail conditions.

Meng left for China on Friday evening, shortly after she spoke to reporters outside a Vancouver courthouse, saying her life had been “turned upside-down” over the past few years and thanking the Canadian government “for upholding the rule of law.”

She arrived in Shenzhen on Saturday evening, where she was met by a crowd waving national flags. A skyscraper in the city was lit up with the words “Welcome home Meng Wanzhou.”

Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, tweeted that a college student brought a bouquet of flowers to the ministry “to thank the Chinese government’s unremitting efforts to bring Ms. Meng back to the motherland.” Meng faces quarantine under China’s
coronavirus pandemic-control rules.
“Justice prevails,” Hua wrote in another tweet that shared two photos: One showing Meng’s feet in a pair of black heels with the GPS monitor she was required to wear while out on bail in Canada on one ankle, and another picture showing her without the GPS monitor.

The release of the two Michaels resolves one of Trudeau’s knottiest foreign policy headaches. Some opposition lawmakers had pressed him to take a harder line against China. Several prominent Canadians, including former foreign ministers, had urged him to release Meng, hoping it would spur China to release Kovrig and Spavor.

But Trudeau repeatedly rejected those calls, saying that doing so would send a signal to governments around the world that they could gain leverage over Canada by detaining its citizens. He has said that Meng’s case would be resolved by independent courts in Canada in accordance with the rule of law.

Comfort Ero, a senior executive at International Crisis Group, Kovrig’s employer, thanked Canada and the United States for their support.

“To the inimitable, indefatigable and inspiring Michael Kovrig, welcome home!” she said on Twitter.