After 557 days of interrogation and incarceration in facilities with lights shining day and night, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been formally charged by Chinese authorities with espionage charges punishable by life in prison.

The charges against the two men, which carry a minimum sentence of 10 years, represent the formal commencement of judicial proceedings against them, placing them into a justice system with a conviction rate in excess of 99 per cent.

Mr. Kovrig was charged with spying on national secrets and intelligence for entities outside the territory of China. Mr. Spavor was charged with spying on national secrets and illegally providing state secrets to entities outside of the territory of China. In both cases, the charges were made “with particularly serious circumstances,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday, using language that indicates a harsh penalty under Chinese law. “The facts of the crime are clear and the evidence is indeed sufficient,” Mr. Zhao said. He declined to describe any evidence against the men, or say what they are accused of doing.

Mr. Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat who has worked as a senior adviser for North East Asia for International Crisis Group. Mr. Spavor is a businessman who helped to arrange travel into North Korea. He is “a peaceful man interested in reconciliation between North Korea and the world and between the two Koreas,” said Mr. Spavor’s friend, Jacco Zwetsloot. “He’s not a political man. He’s not a spy or secret agent.”

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were both arrested Dec. 10, 2018, days after the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. China has called the case against Ms. Meng a political prosecution and repeatedly demanded her release from Canada, where she has been released on bail and has lived in her two multi-million-dollar houses.

In China meanwhile, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were initially interrogated for six and sometimes eight hours a day by state security officials. They were then placed in detention centres, where they have been kept in 24-hour lighting, with officials cutting off consular access after mid-January, citing the Coronavirus pandemic. The men have also not been allowed to see their lawyers. Visits can resume “after this situation gets better,” said Mr. Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, referring to an epidemic that Chinese officials have declared under control.

The decision to prosecute the men, who have been widely described as victims of Chinese “hostage diplomacy,” comes after a British Columbia court denied an initial application for Ms. Meng to be released from Canada, where she is in the midst of an extradition process to the U.S.

U.S. prosecutors have accused Ms. Meng of fraud related to violation of sanctions against Iran; her lawyers say she has committed no crime. Asked about China’s position on hostage diplomacy, Mr. Zhao dismissed the question as both malicious and irrelevant, saying: “maybe you should ask the Canadian government about hostage diplomacy.”

Before the filing of formal charges against Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, Chinese procurators held the option of rejecting the case against them and releasing them.

Chinese law mandates procedural timelines that made it likely charges against the two Canadians would be filed by this weekend.

But now that they have been charged, the men are likely to face trial and sentencing, a process that can take years.

“The statistics that are available make clear that once a case — especially a case involving state security charges — progresses to this stage, a trial is almost inevitable and unfortunately conviction is pretty much certain,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, who leads Amnesty International’s China team. The cases against the two Canadian men, he said, have been “plagued by obvious violations to their rights to a fair trail. The length of time that it’s taken so far even to get to this stage flies in the face of international standards on fair trial.”

If countries “have not already begun to reassess the risks that people working in China face, then they’re far too late to the game,” he said.

The formalization of charges against the two men “makes it less likely they’ll be released soon and more likely they will be detained for some time,” said Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat who is director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

For China to release the two men now would “underline that it is a political decision to arrest them and release them — and not something as determined by the aegis of the court itself,” he said.

Chinese authorities have taken no further steps against Fan Wei or Robert Schellenberg, two Canadians sentenced to death on drug charges, legal counsel for the two men said Friday.

Lawyer Zhang Dongshuo, who represents Mr. Schellenberg, does not represent Mr. Kovrig or Mr. Spavor.

But, he said, “from the aspect of law in China, once the procuratorate organ makes such a decision, it means the case formally enters the court stage and moves toward trial.” Because the charges involve state secrets, “it’s very likely the trial won’t proceed openly, there will be no observers and the verdict and case information won’t be made public, either.”

Kevin Garratt, a Canadian citizen previously charged in China on state secrets violations, waited more than a year after he was charged before his case went to trial. Like Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, Mr. Garratt was arrested in the midst of extradition proceedings in Canada against a Chinese citizen: Su Bin, who eventually pleaded guilty in the U.S. to conspiring with hackers in the U.S. to steal U.S. defence secrets.

In an interview Friday, Mr. Garratt recalled feeling like “I couldn’t do anything” when the charges against him were formalized.

Things were “in motion and there really was no option — it had all been pre-decided,” he said. Mr. Garratt was eventually sentenced to prison, and then deported.

For China, he said, “very unfortunately this behaviour is getting predictable.”

Critics, however, accuse the Chinese government of acting against its own interests. The charges against Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are “a desperate act by Beijing to shore up its power in the post-pandemic world amid the accusation of a cover-up earlier. But it’s a miscalculation. I think it will backfire,” said Lynette Ong, a scholar of authoritarian politics at the University of Toronto.

“The tide is turning against China post-pandemic. We are starting to see a united front against it.”

The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2020