Canadian businessman Michael Spavor was arrested in 2018 and accused of espionage. File Photo courtesy of Korean Central News Agency/EPA-EFE
Sept. 25 (UPI) -- A Canadian diplomat and entrepreneur accused of spying have been set free to return home from China after nearly three years in prison.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced late Friday that Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor were returning home, and thanked diplomats and other Canadian officials "who have been tireless" in efforts to secure their release. Spavor, who had conducted business in North Korea and China, was convicted of espionage last month and sentenced to 11 years in prison. No decision had been made in Kovrig's case.
The two Canadians were arrested in China in December 2018, and faced wide-ranging espionage charges with Beijing accusing them of stealing state secrets a few months later.
The espionage charges against the two Canadians came two days after Canada decided to proceed with a hearing on extraditing Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, to the United States to face charges.
The United States accused Meng of violating trade sanctions against Iran while the Justice Department opened an investigation into whether Huawei, which manufactures smartphones and other electronics, sold equipment to Iran.
Meng reached a deal with U.S. prosecutors earlier Friday to return to China. Under the deal, she agreed that was misleading about Huawei's relationship with Iranian subsidiary Skycom, and that she would not make statements conflicting with the agreement or commit other crimes. In exchange, the United States agreed to withdraw its request for Canada to extradite Meng to the United States, and the charges will be deferred until late 2022.
Meng also pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud and wire fraud Friday during a virtual arraignment.
The detention of the so-called "two Michaels" was widely seen as a retaliatory act for the arrest of Meng, CBC News reported.
A former diplomat told the CBC the timing of the release proves the link between the cases.
"China ... up until now, has said that there's been no linkage between the two, but by putting them on the plane tonight, they've clearly acknowledged that this was hostage-taking," said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat for over 30 years. "It reminds me of the swaps you used to have of spies in the Cold War."
Robertson added that U.S. President Joe Biden may have helped broker the deal in a recent call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"The U.S. government stands with the international community in welcoming the decision by People's Republic of China authorities to release Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig after more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Friday. "We are pleased that they are returning home to Canada."
Beijing denies that the arrest of the two Canadians was retaliatory, the BBC reported.