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Canadian Michael Kovrig held in China for allegedly endangering national security

  • International Crisis Group says China’s state security bureau was responsible for former diplomat’s detention, on whom there has been no word since Monday
  • China had warned of ‘grave consequences’ after Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Sabrina Meng over alleged breaches of sanctions against Iran
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 12:55pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 2:53pm

Canadian former diplomat Michael Kovrig was detained by Chinese authorities because he is suspected of engaging in activities that endangered China’s national security, The Beijing News has reported.

Kovrig, who is a senior adviser for the anti-war, non-profit organisation International Crisis Group (ICG), was seized by state security on Monday night in Beijing, according to the ICG itself.

“Our reporters have learned from the relevant departments that Canadian citizen Michael John Kovrig was detained by the Beijing Municipal State Security Bureau on December 10 in accordance with the law for allegedly engaging in activities that endangered China’s national security. The case is now under investigation,” the News said.

In a regular press conference, the Foreign Ministry said that he might have broken China’s foreign NGO law if he carried out certain activities for the group in China.

“My understanding is that ICG is not registered in China … If their staff conduct activities in China, he has violated the foreign non-government organisations law,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Wednesday. “China will handle the case in accordance with the law.”

Lu declined to comment on whether Kovrig’s detention was related to that of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei Technologies who was arrested in Canada at the request of the United States Justice Department.

The US is seeking Meng’s extradition on charges relating to breaches of US sanctions against Iran. She was released on C$10 million (US$7.5 million) bail on Tuesday.

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ICG, which focuses on conflict resolution, said it had received no information about Kovrig, who specialises in northeast Asia, since his detention and was worried for his safety.

“Michael was detained on Monday night in Beijing by the Beijing Bureau of Chinese State Security,” the group said. “We continue to seek information on Michael’s case and well-being.”

Kovrig is a former diplomat and worked at Canada’s embassy in Beijing from 2014 to 2016. He took a leave of absence from Canada’s foreign affairs ministry to join International Crisis Group, which means he still has diplomatic status, according to Canada’s former ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques.

Saint-Jacques said he feared Kovrig would be charged with espionage because of his work in China.

Kovrig has researched security issues in northeast Asia for the group since February 2017, has published articles regularly on China’s role in peace and security, and has regularly interviewed Chinese officials for his work.

We’re deeply concerned … We are sparing no effort to do everything we possibly can to look after [Kovrig’s] safety
Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale

Kovrig closely followed security issues on the Korean peninsula, and frequently attended high-level forums. He attended the 8th Xiangshan military forum in Beijing in October, focusing on security in North Korea, as well as the Shangri-La Dialogue in June.

Kovrig was a commentator for CNBC on the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June.

Meng’s arrest has angered Beijing. Over the weekend, China’s vice-foreign minister Le Yucheng demanded to meet Canadian ambassador John McCallum and warned of “grave consequences”.

Canada’s Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale confirmed the Kovrig detention.

“We’re deeply concerned,” Goodale said in response to a question. “A Canadian is obviously in difficulty in China … We are sparing no effort to do everything we possibly can to look after his safety.”

Ex-Canadian ambassador warns Kovrig detention has precedent as reprisal

Goodale said there was no explicit indication at this point that Kovrig’s detention was related to the Meng arrest.

China’s foreign NGO law states that a 10-day detention could be imposed if an NGO carries out activities in China without being registered, but criminal prosecution could follow if those activities involved state secrets.

A former diplomat said it would not be difficult for China to use Kovrig as a retaliation.

“[China] will be able to find a reason, that he travelled to sensitive regions or met with sensitive individuals or something,” the diplomat said.

“They will not say it directly but the relevant people will know in their hearts what this means diplomatically.”

David Mulroney, who served as Canada’s ambassador in Beijing from 2009 to 2012, acknowledged the possibility of Kovrig being held in reprisal for Meng’s arrest.

“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 soon 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.

Canadian Kevin Garratt is free, after two years in Chinese detention on spying charge

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 the US Justice Department.

A relative of Kovrig told the South China Morning Post he hoped the former diplomat would return home safely without delay.

“[I hope] whatever situation has led to this circumstance – especially if it is retaliatory in nature – is resolved quickly, peacefully, and justly,” said Neill Kovrig, a cousin who lives in the US.

Neill Kovrig said he had kept in touch with his relative overseas and had great respect for him. “I find myself in awe of his intelligence and his insights on all manner of things. And I think what troubles me so much about this is seeing a relative, no matter how distant, in peril. Again, I can only hope for his safe return.”

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney and Associated Press