Ambassador John McCallum told Chinese language media in Markham, Ontario, on Tuesday that Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has "quite good arguments," including "political involvement by comments from Donald Trump on her case."
Canada arrested the daughter of Huawei's founder at the request of the U.S. on Dec. 1. Meng is wanted on fraud charges that she misled banks about the company's business dealings in Iran. Trump said last month he would be willing to abandon the Meng case in pursuit of a trade deal with Beijing. That led some to suggest the case has been politicized and the U.S. is loosening its commitment to the rule of law and an independent judiciary.
"I think she has some strong arguments that she can make before a judge," said McCallum, who is an economist. McCallum also listed two other arguments Meng could use before a judge. If she is extradited to the U.S., the ambassador said, "That would not be a happy outcome."
"And that would take years before it happens because she would have the right to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada." McCallum also said the U.S. could make a deal with China in which it would no longer seek her extradition, and two Canadian detained in China could then be released.
The case has severely damaged Beijing's relations with Ottawa. China detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor on Dec. 10 in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada to release Meng. A Chinese court also sentenced a Canadian to death in a sudden retrial, overturning a 15-year prison term handed down earlier.
Huawei has close ties to China's military and is considered one of the country's most successful international enterprises, operating in the high-tech sphere where China hopes to establish dominance. "President Xi Jinping was very angry about this and so others in the Chinese government have taken the lead from him," McCallum said. "I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's because Huawei is a national flagship company of China. It's not just any company."
David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China, called McCallum's remarks "mind-boggling." Mulroney said talking about the merits of the case and saying he hopes Meng should be released is completely inappropriate when the government has been saying that Meng's extradition is up to judicial authorities.
Mulroney said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland have to distance themselves from the remarks of McCallum, who is a former Cabinet minister in the government.
"It's a setback and an unfortunate setback. It undermines that Canada is playing this by the book," he said. "If it is a strategy it is a remarkably poor one." Trudeau and Freeland have stressed they can't interfere politically in the case. Trudeau didn't answer when asked by a reporter if he agreed with his ambassador that Meng has a strong case not to be extradited.
Freeland spokesman Adam Austen said in a statement there has been no political involvement in the Meng case and that Canada is honoring its extradition treaty with the U.S. McCallum didn't invite major English-speaking media outlets to his press conference.
McCallum said the Meng case "a result of ongoing tensions between China and the United States. Or it may be." The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment Wednesday Meng is due back in court Feb. 6 in relation to her bail conditions. McCallum said the first date of her extradition hearing will be in March but the actual hearings will be some time after that.
Opposition Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called for the ambassador to be fired Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto, said McCallum has always been somewhat autonomous and said his behavior when he was a lawmaker for Markham is what he would expect from someone who represented a largely Chinese-Canadian constituency.
"McCallum may be right on the extradition case, and the arguments to be used for the defense," Bothwell said. "However, there is the behavior of the Chinese government subsequent to the extradition, and that should be enough to give anybody pause. It evidently doesn't take a lot to send the Chinese into hysterics, and when hysterical they like to throw their weight around."