365 days of detention in China: What life is like for Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig

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365 days of detention in China: What life is like for Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig

The Dandong Detention Centre, in China, where Canadian Michael Spavor has been kept since May 6.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The walls are high and painted a dark shade of grey. Towering over them, Chinese characters in bright red command those inside to “listen to the Party’s orders.”

Locked inside with hundreds of others is Michael Spavor, one of two Canadians seized by Chinese authorities after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport just over a year ago. Mr. Spavor, a businessman who brought tourists, artists and athletes into North Korea, has been inside the Dandong Detention Centre since May 6, held in Cell 315 with some 20 others.

Some 670 kilometres away, former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig is in another cell, with just one other inmate, in a detention facility on the southern outskirts of Beijing.

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The Globe and Mail visited both detention sites to get a sense of conditions but did not have access to either prisoner. The Globe has learned that Mr. Spavor is being held in the same section of the Dandong Detention Centre where Kevin Garratt, another Canadian detained amid a spat between Ottawa and Beijing, spent 19 months before his release in 2016.

Twelve months ago, both Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were going about their lives when they were picked up by Chinese security agents – Mr. Kovrig while returning to his pied-à-terre in the capital, Mr. Spavor while preparing for a flight to Seoul.

In May, both men were formally arrested, accused of violating state secrets laws. The Canadian government has called their arrests arbitrary, while critics, scholars and former diplomats alike have accused China of hostage diplomacy, a state-sanctioned kidnapping that has plunged Beijing’s relationship with Ottawa into its worst crisis since the killing of students at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“These two Canadians are and will remain our absolute priority. We will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a statement on Monday.

Chinese authorities have made public no evidence against either man, but have loudly and repeatedly demanded the release of Ms. Meng. Television screens inside the Canadian embassy in Beijing, meanwhile, regularly cycle through photographs of the men, reminding visitors that they have been arbitrarily detained since Dec. 10, 2018.

In interviews with people in Asia, North America and Europe, The Globe has learned new details about their situation.

Michael Spavor, an accomplished Korean speaker, has sought to further his linguistic skills by reading Korean-language books at the Dandong Detention Centre.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Behind the public sparring between a Group of Seven country and the world’s pre-eminent authoritarian power, the two men have remained locked in a Chinese justice system that answers to the Communist Party and confines people in facilities far different than the $13-million mansion where Ms. Meng resides, paints and regularly receives visitors while under house arrest.

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“You can imagine what those conditions are like,” said Robert Malley, the president of International Crisis Group, where Mr. Kovrig was working as an adviser on Northeast Asia when he was taken. “These are not conditions that come anywhere near close to the conditions that Ms. Meng is facing in Canada.” Ms. Meng lives in a tony Vancouver neighbourhood, monitored by security but free to roam the city until a nightly curfew. She has described spending time reading novels and completing oil paintings.

Mr. Kovrig “is detained and without access to most of the things he should have access to,” Mr. Malley said.

That includes a lawyer and information about a basic timeline of what will happen to him. Chinese authorities have broad latitude to detain those accused of crimes, particularly state secrets offences, for lengthy periods.

Mr. Kovrig has ”showed remarkable resilience, sense of humour and strength,” Mr. Malley said. “But I won’t hide the fact that this has been very difficult for him, as it would be for anyone in his position.”

The families of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, barred from seeing them, have declined to speak publicly to avoid jeopardizing the efforts of diplomats and political leaders to secure their release.

For the first six months, both men were held and interrogated in facilities run by the Ministry of State Security, kept in conditions akin to solitary confinement, barred from seeing daylight and subjected to interrogations that could last for eight hours a day.

Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor were seized by Chinese authorities after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport just over a year ago.

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