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International relations

China delays verdict in espionage case of Canada's Spavor

Diplomats locked out of court in case seen as linked to Huawei's Meng Wanzhou

Foreign diplomats wait outside the Intermediate People's Court where Michael Spavor, a Canadian detained by China in December 2018 on suspicion of espionage, is expected to stand trial, in Dandong, China on March 19.    © Reuters

DANDONG, China (Reuters) -- The trial of Canadian citizen Michael Spavor, detained by China since late 2018 on suspicion of espionage, ended on Friday after closed-court hearing of around two hours, in a case embroiled in a wider diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing.

Spavor and his lawyer appeared for the hearing and the court will later set a date to issue a verdict, the Dandong Intermediate People's Court said in a statement on its website.

Chinese courts have a conviction rate of over 99%.

The 45-year-old Canadian businessman was not seen outside the court and there was no word on his condition.

China arrested Spavor and fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig in December 2018, soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies, on a U.S. warrant.

Beijing insists the detentions are not linked to the arrest of Meng, who remains under house arrest in Vancouver as she fights extradition to the United States.

Kovrig, a former diplomat, is due to go on trial on Monday in Beijing.

Police set up a cordon on Friday morning outside the court, which sits along the Yalu River opposite North Korea, the isolated country that Spavor regularly visited in his business career.

Officials from the Canadian embassy and other nations including United States, Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Germany were present outside the court as they sought access to the hearing. They were not allowed to enter.

"We are disappointed in the lack of access and the lack of transparency," Nickel told reporters ahead of the hearing.

"The reason that has been given is it's a so-called national security case and their belief is that the domestic law overrides international law, which in fact is not the case. China does have international obligations to allow consular access," he said.

Nickel said Canadian officials last saw Spavor on Feb. 3 and had made multiple requests to see him ahead of the trial, but those requests were denied.

Observers have said the likely convictions of the two men could ultimately facilitate a diplomatic agreement whereby the two men are released and sent back to Canada.

The trial dates were announced by Canada just as the United States and China were preparing to hold high-level talks in Alaska, the first since U.S. President Joe Biden took office, which have proven to be contentious.

China on Thursday denied a link to those talks.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the timing was clearly designed to coincide with the talks between the United States and China, which wants to pressure the Biden administration to arrange for Meng's release.

"We are in a very tough position because in fact unfortunately at this stage there is nothing that the Canadian government can do," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday.

In a statement, Spavor's family called for the unconditional release of both men.

"Michael is just an ordinary Canadian businessman who has done extraordinary things to build constructive ties between Canada, China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," they said.

"He loved living and working in China and would never have done anything to offend the interests of China or the Chinese people."

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