Lengthy interrogations. No access to lawyers. No access to family. Nathan VanderKlippe visits the Chinese prisons where the pair are being held in what has been called hostage diplomacy over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
In May, however, they were moved to the detention centres where they remain today. Guards initially seized Mr. Kovrig’s glasses, citing regulations against metal objects, although they replaced his eyewear days later with a plastic-framed model.
As the months have passed, both men have been granted a few additional liberties. They have exchanged letters with family and other supporters. Both have passed time reading books sent via diplomats, who have been restricted to heavily monitored visits of just 30 minutes a month.
Mr. Kovrig exercises and has practised meditation. Other foreigners detained in Beijing have described lengthy periods of forced sitting and a diet of thin soy broth and boiled potatoes, cabbage and turnips.
Mr. Spavor, an accomplished Korean speaker, has sought to further his linguistic skills by reading Korean-language books.
A Dandong police propaganda official declined to comment on Mr. Spavor’s treatment, saying only: “All of our work must be in accordance with the law and regulations. There’s no need for you to worry about that.” The possibility that Mr. Spavor could be mistreated “doesn’t exist,” she said.
In the section of the Dandong Detention Centre where Mr. Spavor (and Mr. Garratt before him) is being held, detainees must pass through a tunnel and seven locked doors before reaching cells in the third block, situated inside an imposing inner wall ringed with guard towers and razor wire. When Mr. Garratt was there, the third block was a medical wing that offered modestly less severe treatment, exempting detainees from the forced labour required in other blocks: making paper toilet seat covers and plastic flowers.
Days began with the ringing of a bell at 6 a.m., followed by a breakfast of thin corn gruel and a steamed bun. Workers also passed by cells with a cart offering better fare for those who could afford to pay as much as $40 a dish. Staying in the centre cost Mr. Garratt more than $500 a month, not including medical payments. Even then, the food he purchased never arrived 28.4 per cent of the time, he said, citing statistics he maintained while in detention. At the time, 900 people were kept in the centre.
The toilet was a hole in the floor behind glass walls, fully exposed to others. Bright fluorescent lights remained on 24 hours a day, and detainees were told not to sleep with blankets over their eyes. They were assigned to rotating shifts every night, two at a time, to keep an eye on others. Cameras also kept constant surveillance.
Mr. Garratt had regular, if limited, access to an attached outdoor “cage.” The cement pad allowed detainees to stroll more freely than in their cells, where there was little space to move past the beds – wooden boards on steel frames covered by thin cotton pads. The hard bed caused Mr. Garratt so much back pain that he was taken in for an MRI, which revealed misaligned vertebrae.
A devoted Christian, he spent his days reading, praying and chatting with other detainees. Often their conversation turned to how long others expected to be jailed in a justice system with a conviction rate just shy of 100 per cent. Mr. Garratt shared a cell with people accused of murder, corruption and petty theft.
But no one knew when word might come of trials or convictions. Instead, they followed daily regimens – waking, eating, tidying, eating, tidying, napping, chatting, eating again, showering in groups to use the 30 minutes of allotted daily hot water – in dark uncertainty.
“You’re under this constant stress of not ever knowing what’s going on,” Mr. Garratt said.
It was just “waiting, waiting, waiting. The not knowing. The waiting.”
The Globe and Mail, December 9, 2019