Chinese prosecutors said on Friday they have charged two detained Canadians for suspected espionage, indictments that could result in life imprisonment, in a case that has driven a diplomatic wedge between Ottawa and Beijing.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were arrested in late 2018 on state security charges, soon after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei Technologies Co’s [HWT.UL] chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver on a U.S. warrant.
While China maintains the detentions are not linked to Meng, former diplomats and experts have said they are being used to pressure Canada.
China has repeatedly called for Meng’s release, and has warned Canada that it could face consequences for aiding the United States in her case.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing on Friday that the indictments were “of particularly serious circumstances which violated Article 111 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China,” which pertains to espionage and state secrets.
Under that article, a conviction can carry a sentence of from 10 years to life imprisonment “when circumstances are particularly serious”.
“The facts are clear and the evidence is solid and sufficient. He should be held accountable for criminal responsibility under the above mentioned charge,” Zhao said of Kovrig, before making the same statement about Spavor.
The charges mean a formal trial can begin.
Canada has called the arrests “arbitrary”. The Canadian Embassy in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this month, China’s envoy to Canada, Cong Peiwu, told Reuters the two detained men were “in good health.” The foreign ministry said on Friday that consular visits to detainees had been suspended due the coronavirus.
The ruling Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said last year that Kovrig is accused of “stealing and spying on sensitive Chinese information and intelligence.” It said Spavor provided Kovrig with intelligence, without giving details.
Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organization that focuses on conflict resolution. ICG could not immediately be reached for comment.
ICG has previously said the accusations against Kovrig are “vague and unsubstantiated.”
Spavor, 44, is a businessman with deep ties to North Korea.
Last month, Huawei’s Meng, the daughter of the founder of the telecoms giant, lost a legal bid to avoid extradition to the United States to face bank fraud charges, dashing hopes for an end to her house arrest in Vancouver.
She recently raised a new argument in a Canadian court in a bid to fight extradition, court documents released on Monday showed.