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China charges 2 Canadians with spying in Huawei-linked case

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese prosecutors charged two detained Canadians with spying Friday in an apparent bid to step up pressure on Canada to drop a U.S. extradition request for a Huawei executive under house arrest in Vancouver.

Michael Kovrig was charged by Beijing on suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence. Michael Spavor was charged in Dandong, a city near the North Korean border, on suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets.

The charges were announced by China’s highest prosecutor’s office in brief social media posts. Asked what evidence China had against the two, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said only that each is charged with “secretly gathering state secrets for overseas forces with particularly serious consequences.”

“The facts are clear and the evidence solid and sufficient," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing. Zhao gave no details. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “very disappointed” by China's latest move and called it a very difficult time for the two Canadians and their families.

“The Chinese authorities have directly linked the case of the two Michaels to the judicial proceedings against Mrs. Meng, which is extremely disappointing," Trudeau said. “These Canadian citizens are being held for no other reason than the Chinese government being disappointed with the independent proceedings of the Canadian judiciary.”

Trudeau said they will continue to press the Chinese for their release and said Canada's allies are equally concerned. Both men have been held for 18 months. They were detained shortly after the December 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei. The daughter of Huawei’s founder was arrested at the request of U.S. authorities who want her on fraud charges related to trade with Iran.

A Canadian judge ruled this month that the U.S. extradition case against Meng could proceed to the next stage. China has denied any explicit link between her case and the lengthy detention of the two Canadian men, but outside experts see them as tied and Chinese diplomats have strongly implied a connection.

Meng has been released on bail while her extradition case proceeds in court and is residing in one of her two Vancouver mansions where she is reportedly working on a graduate degree. Kovrig and Spavor are being held at an undisclosed location and up to now, have been denied access to lawyers or family members.

China has also sentenced two other Canadians to death and suspended imports of Canadian canola, while saying those moves were also unrelated to Meng’s case. Relations between Canada and China are at their lowest point since the Chinese military’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"I was heartbroken and I was really angry when I learned of the latest development with the two Michaels,” Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said. “We will not rest until they are able to come home.”

Freeland also said China must provide consular access to them. Canadian officials have not been granted consular access to to them since mid-January. Kovrig worked as a Hong Kong-based analyst at the non-government International Crisis Group. He previously worked as a diplomat for Canada.

“This is yet another arbitrary and baseless step in a case that has been arbitrary and baseless from day one. Michael was not endangering China’s security: everything he was doing was in the open and well known to China’s authorities,” International Crisis Group President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Malley said in a statement.

The tensions appear to be causing further harm to Huawei’s reputation in the Americas, with two of Canada’s three major telecommunication companies announcing earlier this month that they’ve decided not to use the Chinese tech giant for their next-generation 5G wireless network.

Bell Canada announced that Sweden-based Ericsson will be its supplier and Telus Corp. later announced that it had also selected Ericsson and Nokia. Huawei is the world’s biggest supplier of network gear used by phone and internet companies, but has long been seen as a front for spying by China’s military and its highly skilled security services.

The U.S. has urged Canada to exclude Huawei equipment from their next-generation wireless networks, saying Huawei is legally beholden to the Chinese regime. The United States and Australia have banned Huawei, citing concerns it is an organ of Chinese military intelligence — a charge the company denies.

Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

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