Beijing’s detention of Michael Kovrig has precedent as an act of reprisal, warns former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney

  • David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador in Beijing from 2009 to 2012, sees parallels with a 2014 arrest of two other Canadians
  • Kevin and Julia Garratt were imprisoned for more than two years after Ottawa detained Su Bin on a US request
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 1:59am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 8:28pm

Canada’s former ambassador to China has cited parallels between Beijing’s detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and the 2014 arrests of two other Canadians – arrests that also occurred after Ottawa acted on a US government request to detain a Chinese national.

David Mulroney, who served as Canada’s ambassador in Beijing from 2009 to 2012, spoke to the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, shortly after reports were confirmed that Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who worked in China and now works for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), had been detained in China.

Kovrig worked as a first secretary and vice-consul in Canada’s embassy in Beijing for about two years, starting in September 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig detained in China

The Kovrig detention occurred less than two weeks after Canadian authorities arrested Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei Technologies, at the behest of the US Justice Department, which seeks her extradition on charges stemming from alleged breaches of sanctions against Iran.

Meng’s bail hearing in British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver is expected to wrap up later on Tuesday.

Meng’s arrest has angered Beijing. Over the weekend, Vice-Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned Canadian Ambassador John McCallum to warn of “grave consequences”.

It is unclear why Kovrig, who has worked for ICG since 2017, was detained, but Mulroney acknowledged the possibility of his being held in reprisal for Meng’s arrest.

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“I don’t want to speculate, but there is some history there that would be a cause of concern for us,” Mulroney said, referring to the case of Kevin and Julia Garratt, a married couple who were imprisoned in China on spy charges shortly after Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese national in response to a US government request.

After living in China for 30 years without incident, the Garratts were arrested by Chinese security officials in August 2014 and accused of spying and stealing military secrets – charges the Garratts denied, according to reports by Canada’s CBC News.

Julia was released in February 2015, but was put on bail with restrictions pending trial, and did not return to Canada until May 2016; Kevin was not released until September 2016, the reports said.

About a month before the Garratts were detained, a Chinese national, Su Bin, was arrested in Canada on a warrant issued by the United States. Su was sentenced to 46 months in US federal prison after Canada extradited him to the US on espionage charges, according to a US Justice Department announcement at the time.

Su “admitted to participating in a years-long conspiracy that involved Chinese military officers hacking into the computer networks of major US defence contractors in order to steal military technical data”, the Justice Department announcement said.

Earlier this year, the Garratts published an account of their imprisonment, Two Tears on the Window.

Mulroney also rebutted Chinese claims that Canada failed to inform Beijing about Meng’s detention until officials were asked about the case. The assertion by foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang came just hours after Ottawa insisted it had notified the Chinese consulate in Vancouver on December 1, the same day she was arrested.

“The fact that Canada said they were alerted on the day of the event really renders that claim baseless,” Mulroney said. “What makes that more ironic is that I can remember instances where we were dealing with a dual national or a Canadian of Chinese origin when months would go by.

“We wouldn’t know the person was detained because we wouldn’t know the person was in China. And finally a relative would let us know many months after the detention and the Chinese would say ‘sorry, we didn’t know he or she was a Canadian’. It just didn’t seem to be a priority for them.

“So if anything, it’s China that needs to be far more alert about living up to its consular obligations, not Canada.”