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China sentences Canadian Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison

China sentences Canadian Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison
Canadian businessman Michael Spavor was sentenced by a Chinese court to 11 years in jail. File Photo by EPA-EFE/KCNA

Aug. 11 (UPI) -- A Chinese court sentenced a Canadian businessman convicted of espionage to 11 years in prison on Wednesday, a ruling that will further fray relations between the two nations as Ottawa views the detention of Michael Spavor as politically motivated.

The court in Dandong city near China's southern border with North Korea issued a brief statement announcing the sentence, stating Spavor was sentenced for spying and illegally providing state secrets to foreign nations.

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It said Spavor will be deported but did not specify when. He has the opportunity to appeal the decision, Canadian authorities said.

"China's conviction and sentencing of Michael Spavor is absolutely unacceptable and unjust," Canadian Prime Minister Justine Trudeau said Wednesday in a statement. "The verdict for Mr. Spavor comes after more than two and a half years of arbitrary detention, a lack of transparency in the legal process and a trial that did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law."

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Spavor, a China-based businessman who has made several trips to North Korea, is one of two Canadians who were arrested weeks after Canadian authorities detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at a Vancouver airport in December 2019 at the request of the United States, which accuses her of obstructing justice and violating sanctions, among other charges.

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Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the other Canadian detained on similar charges in the wake of Meng's arrest, were formally charged and tried behind closed doors in March, two years after being detained and days after Ottawa said it would proceed with Meng's extradition proceedings while out on bail.

The Wednesday ruling by the Chinese court suggests that Kovrig, a former diplomat, will receive a similar sentence. Meng is currently fighting extradition proceedings in the Canadian court system.

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"For Mr. Spavor, as well as for Michael Kovrig who has also been arbitrarily detained, our top priority remains securing their immediate release," the prime minister said. "We will continue working around the clock to bring them home as soon as possible."

The Canadian Embassy in China said representatives from 25 countries joined Canada on Tuesday at its Beijing mission in a sign of solidarity for Spavor and to denounce his detention as arbitrary.

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Dominic Barton, the Canadian ambassador to China, told reporters during a press conference outside the courthouse that he met with Spavor after the sentence was handed down, and that he had three messages for the public.

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"One, thank you for all of your support; it means a lot to me. Two, I am in good spirits. And three, I want to get home," Barton said on Spavor's behalf.

Barton said the international support sends a strong signal to China "that all of the eyes of the world are watching."

China has repeatedly balked at the accusations that it detained the two Canadians to use them as leverage for the release of Meng, and in March the Chinese Embassy in Canada accused Ottawa of "grossly interfering" in its judicial sovereignty.

"I would like to reiterate that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are suspected of crimes endangering China's national security," it said in a statement.

"At the same time, I would like to stress once again that what the Canadian side has done in the Meng Wanzhou incident is arbitrary detention in every sense of the term. We urge the Canadian side to earnestly respect China's judicial sovereignty, stop interfering in Chain's lawful handling of the cases in any form and immediately release Ms. Meng Wanzhou and ensure her early and safe return to China," it said.

Beijing has also accused Canada of participating in "megaphone diplomacy" and of attempting to "gang up on China."

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U.S. President Joe Biden has voiced his support for the release of the two Canadians, stating in late February during a joint press conference with Trudeau that "human beings are not bartering chips."

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the sentencing of Spavor and called on China to release all those it has arbitrarily detained.

"The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign government is completely unacceptable," he said in a statement. "People should never be used as bargaining chips."

The sentence came a day after China upheld the death sentence of Canadian citizen Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, who was arrested in 2014 on charges of smuggling hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine into the country.

Schellenberg was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison but he was given the death penalty during a one-day retrial in January 2019, a month after Meng was arrested.

At least three other Canadian citizens have been sentenced to death in separate drug cases since 2019.

"The thoughts of all Canadians are with Michael Spavor and his family following his unjust conviction and ongoing arbitrary detention," Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement. "Canada continues to explore all avenues to secure Mr. Spavor's release. Securing his release, as well as that of Michael Kovrig, remains our top priority."

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