TORONTO — Two Canadian men imprisoned in China for 1,020 days in what Western officials have decried as a blatant display of “hostage diplomacy” landed in Canada early Saturday.
The two men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — known as the “two Michaels” — could be seen disembarking in the dark from a passenger plane in Calgary, hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that the pair were on their way home “after an unbelievably difficult ordeal.” He met them on the tarmac.
Spavor flashed a thumbs up and gave a wave to reporters as he left the airport. Kovrig went onward to Toronto, where he met his family.
“It is overwhelming. “I find it difficult to put into words the incredible moment that is Kovrig,” Vina Nadjibulla (Viktor’s wife) said as she walked towards Pearson International Airport in order to meet her husband. It’s finally here. After 1,020 days, it is finally here.”
In brief comments to reporters, Kovrig said it was “fantastic” to be back in Canada.
“I am immensely grateful to everybody who worked hard to bring both of us back home,” he said, with Nadjibulla and his sister by his side.
The release of the “two Michaels” came shortly after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, reached a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that allowed her to return to China in exchange for acknowledging some wrongdoing in a criminal case.
Canadian officials arrested Meng, 49, in Vancouver in December 2018, at the behest of U.S. officials who sought her extradition on bank and wire fraud charges related to allegations that she misled a bank about Huawei’s relationship with a subsidiary in Iran. In retaliation, China held Kovrig
Trudeau, whose minority government was returned to office this week after a snap election, said in Ottawa that Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, a businessman, had boarded a plane leaving China at 7: 30 p.m. Ottawa time Friday. The Canadian ambassador to China was with them.
“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau said. “For the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace, and we are all inspired by that.”
The prime minister, whose handling of the dispute has drawn critics from all sides of Canada’s political spectrum, said that there would be time to analyze his country’s relationship with China in the “coming days and weeks.”
Although China has repeatedly denied suggestions that there was a connection between Meng’s arrest and the detention of the two Canadians, a spokesman for Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said last year that releasing Meng could “open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians.”
“By putting them on the plane tonight, they’ve clearly acknowledged that this was hostage-taking,” Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, told a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news program. “And that’s something we’re going to have to be conscious of going forward.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that he welcomed the release of the two Canadians after “more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention.”
Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the state-run Global Times tabloid in China called Meng’s return symbolic progress toward a thawing of China’s relations with the United States and Canada. He wrote that businessmen on international trips shouldn’t be detained for political reasons after this. The release of Michaels was not announced by the Chinese state media.
Kovrig and Spavor had been held in separate Chinese prisons on vague charges of espionage and stealing state secrets, allegations for which China has not provided evidence. The men were denied bail.
The two men were cut off from the outside world, allowed a handful of phone calls — combined — with their families. Kovrig passed the time by walking 7,000 steps in circles inside his cramped cell every day.
The two Michaels were tried separately in March in secret proceedings. Canadian diplomats were prohibited from attending the proceedings, which was in violation of a consular arrangement between the two countries. A Chinese court found Spavor guilty in August and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. Before Kovrig’s release, a verdict was not announced.
Meng, who appeared in a Brooklyn courtroom by video link, pleaded not guilty to bank and wire fraud charges Friday. She agreed to a statement of facts that said that she misled a bank about Huawei’s relationship with a subsidiary, effectively tricking the bank into clearing transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.
U.S. prosecutors said they would defer prosecution of the charges and drop them by Dec. 1, 2022, if Meng complied with the terms of the agreement. The fine was not required.
The deferred prosecution agreement is a “great deal” for Meng and a “bad deal” for the United States that “can only be justified by the humanitarian concern for Kovrig and Spavor,” said Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University, adding that the arrangement rewarded China for “hostage diplomacy.”
Such agreements are often used when the beneficiary is cooperating with prosecutors or has admitted wrongdoing by paying a fine, he said. Both appeared not to have occurred in Meng’s case. She was also allowed to travel to China via Canada without fear of being prosecuted again for any future wrongdoing.
Chinese state media celebrated Meng’s return as a victory for Beijing’s diplomatic clout. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, her release was a result of “untiring efforts by the Chinese government”.
In a letter written from the plane, Meng returned the sentiment. According to CCTV, Meng wrote that “Under leadership of Chinese Communist Party,” our motherland has become more beautiful. Without the might of my motherland I wouldn’t have today’s freedom.”
China has cast the case against Meng as political in nature and part of a U.S. plot to hinder the country’s ascendence. Her comfortable bail conditions, where she took painting lessons at her home and went shopping at Vancouver boutiques on private trips — were not in line with those of Michaels.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, had been out on $8 million bail — staying at the slightly larger of her two multimillion-dollar mansions in Vancouver — while she was fighting extradition to the United States. The Justice Department withdrew their request and a Vancouver judge vacated Meng’s bail conditions.
Meng left for China on Friday evening, shortly after she spoke to reporters outside a Vancouver courthouse, saying her life had been “turned upside-down” over the past few years and thanking the Canadian government “for upholding the rule of law.”
She arrived in Shenzhen on Saturday evening, where she was met by a crowd waving national flags. A skyscraper in the city was lit up with the words “Welcome home Meng Wanzhou.”
Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, tweeted that a college student brought a bouquet of flowers to the ministry “to thank the Chinese government’s unremitting efforts to bring Ms. Meng back to the motherland.” Meng faces quarantine under China’s coronavirus pandemic-control rules.
“Justice prevails,” Hua wrote in another tweet that shared two photos: One showing Meng’s feet in a pair of black heels with the GPS monitor she was required to wear while out on bail in Canada on one ankle, and another picture showing her without the GPS monitor.
The release of the two Michaels resolves one of Trudeau’s knottiest foreign policy headaches. Some lawmakers in opposition had asked him to be more aggressive against China. Many prominent Canadians including ex-foreign ministers urged him not to hold Meng hostage, in the hope that it would encourage China to free Spavor and Kovrig.
But Trudeau repeatedly rejected those calls, saying that doing so would send a signal to governments around the world that they could gain leverage over Canada by detaining its citizens. According to Trudeau, Meng’s case will be handled by Canadian independent courts.
Comfort Ero, a senior executive at International Crisis Group, Kovrig’s employer, thanked Canada and the United States for their support.
“To the inimitable, indefatigable and inspiring Michael Kovrig, welcome home!” she said on Twitter.
Christian Shepherd and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Lyric Li in Seoul, Adela Suliman in London and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.