U.S. President Joe Biden made headlines last week when he issued a clear rebuke to China over its arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and vowed to work to bring them home.
And while the comments sparked headlines worldwide attention, they may have also sparked something else: hope.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Vina Nadjibulla described the pledge by Biden as “powerful” and says it left her feeling that he understands the heavy price her husband Michael Kovrig and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor have borne over the last two years.
“Hearing President Biden say those words was really emotional — having him refer to Michael and to Michael Spavor by name to call for their release was moving,” she said.
“What I took away from that is that President Biden has compassion for the unjust suffering that our Michael and Michael Spavor are going through, as well as that he understands that Canada has been paying a really high price since it accepted the extradition request from the U.S. two years ago.”
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Beijing seized Kovrig and Spavor in December 2018 just days after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S., with which Canada has a longstanding extradition treaty.
Chinese officials have repeatedly made public comments linking the detention of the two Michaels with the arrest of Meng, who is fighting her extradition to the U.S. in a Vancouver court.
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Meng and her company face dozens of charges related to allegations of stealing corporate secrets and skirting sanctions on Iran, but she has been freed on bail and lives in her Vancouver mansion.
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Kovrig and Spavor, meanwhile, have been held in Chinese prisons with only limited access to consular service, and charged with nebulous claims of endangering national security.
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Chinese officials have presented no evidence of those claims, in contrast with American authorities who have detailed their allegations in lengthy legal filings as part of the process of laying legitimate charges.
Biden addressed the detentions of the two Michaels on Feb. 23 in a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and vowed that the U.S. will work to secure their release.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said.
“We’re going to work together until we get their safe return. Canada and the United States will stand together against abuse of universal rights and democratic freedom.”
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Nadjibulla described that public commitment as “really significant” and said she hopes to see action.
“I hope that our government will seize this moment and will work very closely and urgently with the Biden team to translate those important words into action so the Michaels are, in fact, free,” she said.
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Canada’s efforts to free Kovrig and Spavor appear to have been the foundations of a new international pact condemning state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.
Fifty-seven countries signed on to the declaration spearheaded by Canada this month, which did not name any specific countries but is intended to stigmatize the practice much in the same way that similar pacts have denounced and shamed the use of land mines.
The agreement is modelled on NATO’s Article 5, which is the principle of collective defence.
An attack against one member, in other words, is considered an attack against all.
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Shortly after, the House of Commons asked the government to declare Beijing’s persecution of Uighur Muslims a genocide, in a vote that saw support from Liberal MPs — but abstentions from the cabinet.
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