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‘Be relentless’: What it will take to free two Canadians detained in China

From her home in Toronto, Vina Nadjibulla fields hundreds of emails, texts, and phone calls, all about the only person she really wants to hear from.

Nadjibulla’s husband, Michael Kovrig, has been detained in China for more than two years, on espionage charges the Chinese government refuses to explain and Canada’s Prime Minister says are “trumped up” and politically motivated.

Kovrig’s detention — along with that of fellow Canadian Micheal Spavor — followed the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, who is currently fighting extradition to the United States, where she is wanted on charges of breaching sanctions with Iran.

On Monday, Kovrig’s trial finally began in Beijing, but behind closed doors, with journalists and diplomats from more than two-dozen countries refused entry by the Chinese authorities, who said this was because the case involved “state secrets.”

Over the years, Canada has tried patience, pleas, and more recently concerted pressure, to no avail. Kovrig remains in a Chinese prison, where Nadjibulla said he has showed remarkable resilience and resolve.

“He inspires us to stay strong and to be relentless in our efforts to get him freed,” she told CNN in an interview this week. “That is the word that he has used for us: ‘Stay relentless,’ and that is what we must do.”

Though the two separated prior to Kovrig’s arrest, Nadjibulla is still married to Kovrig, and has been a forceful advocate for his release.

Political detention

Beijing claims that Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who works for the International Crisis Group, was “stealing sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017,” while Spavor, a businessman with a focus on North Korea, is accused of providing intelligence to Kovrig.

But most outside observers see the case as politically motivated, and even China has linked the fate of the “two Michaels” — as they are known in Canada — to that of Meng, the Huawei executive, who has enjoyed a far more comfortable detention, allowed to live in her Vancouver mansion and travel within the city of Vancouver with security and a tracking device on her ankle.

Ottawa and Washington have denounced the use of the two men as “bargaining chips.” What becomes of them may well foreshadow what China’s reflex will be in the years to come when confronted with Western rules and laws it will not abide by.

After months of attempting to reach a solution via diplomatic channels, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become increasingly blunt, accusing China of engaging in “coercive diplomacy.” But while he has come under criticism from some Canadians for not doing more, his options for forcing a release may be limited, with the solution China clearly desires — releasing Meng — more dependent on Washington than Ottawa.

“We’ve known since day one that … Michael’s fate and that of Michael Spavor are linked to a bigger geopolitical dispute and we must find a solution for that and that is the only way to bring Michael home,” Nadjibulla said.

She remains cautious about every word she utters on the case, not wanting in any way to compromise Kovrig’s quest for freedom. For months following the two men’s detention, their families were silent, believing that diplomatic negotiations would be successful in arranging their release.

But as their cases have dragged on, with the two men held under difficult and worsening conditions in Chinese prisons, this strategy has proven unsuccessful. As well as being denied access to both men’s trials this month, Canadian officials were denied access to their citizens for 10 months last year, after China introduced new limits on prison visits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In contrast, Meng has had dozens of hearings open to the public, the media and Chinese consular officials, as prescribed by Canadian law. She also has a battery of lawyers working on her case in both the US and Canada, while both Canadians have a lawyer provided by the Chinese government, and have not been able to confer with legal advisers of their choice.

And while the “two Michaels” have been largely cut off from the outside world, Meng has, by her own admission, continued to live a relatively normal life in her multimillion dollar Vancouver home. Canada also recently confirmed that it had granted her family visas to visit her there, even allowing special exemptions from pandemic restrictions.

Nadjibulla said she last heard from her husband in a letter in January. He is afforded few privileges, even things that are taken for granted in Canadian prisons, like exercise and fresh air.

“Michael describes the conditions as difficult, they’re almost monastic,” she said. “He gets to read books, which has been his solace, that is something we advocated quite hard for, for him to be able to get access to books and reading books is what’s keeping him going.”

Despite not being allowed outside, Nadjibulla added that Kovrig has been committed to walking 7,000-steps per day around his cell.

Digging in

Canada’s ambassador to China returned to Ottawa in recent days to further consult with government ministers on China policy as Beijing was hit with a new round of international sanctions — including by Canada — over its crackdown in Xinjiang.

Those sanctions were announced in coordination with Washington, which has stepped up its advocacy for the “two Michaels,” who many Canadians see as being detained as a result of US actions.

Canadian officials said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken raised the issue during a meeting with Chinese diplomats in Alaska last week, adding that the US has agreed to “treat these two individuals as if they were American citizens.”

Speaking earlier this month, Trudeau said “China needs to understand that it is not just about two Canadians, it is the respect for the rule of law and relationships with a broad range of Western countries that is at play with the arbitrary detention and the coercive diplomacy they have engaged in.”

China does not appear shaken, however, and if anything is digging in. The country’s embassy in Ottawa has recently criticized the Canadian government for the arrest of Meng, and steadfastly insisted that the “two Michaels” were arrested for undermining national security.

“On the one hand, the Canadian side claims that it upholds the rule of law, but on the other hand, it makes irresponsible remarks with regards to China’s handling relevant cases in accordance with law,” the embassy said in a statement.

“How hypocritical and arrogant! When it comes to arbitrary detention, Ms. Meng Wanzhou has been arbitrarily detained for over two years despite the fact that she hasn’t violated any Canadian law. This is arbitrary detention in every sense of the term.”

Such rhetoric has raised the stakes for the men’s families. What could have been a tricky bilateral dispute resolved within months has escalated into a major confrontation that could play a role in reshaping China’s relations with the West for years to come.

Nadjibulla believes the support of the Biden administration could give efforts to free the two Canadians new momentum. But she is also realistic about the Chinese position, and what it will take to reach a compromise that will satisfy both parties, particularly with Beijing tying the case explicitly to that of Meng.

“There are people who I know are working on this and my sincere hope is that they see this moment and this development [of a trial] as a stark reminder that real lives are on the line and we must do everything we can to bring them home,” she said.

And as relentless as the past two years have been for her, Nadjibulla said she is always mindful that Kovrig is completely alone.

“It has been difficult for all of us here but nothing in comparison to what Michael has endured and he has done so with so much dignity and strength of character, his courage, his resilience, his ability to remain positive is what inspires me,” she said. “He is in a fight for his life, for his freedom and it is my honor to be in his corner and to continue that fight until the day he’s freed.”

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