Authorities in China said on Friday they have indicted two Canadian nationals -- Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor -- on spying charges, after arresting them in the days following the arrest of Huawei Technologies' chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, a businessman, have been held on suspicion of "spying" since Canada arrested a top executive at Chinese telecoms giant Huawei on Dec. 1, 2018 pending a U.S. extradition request.
They stand accused of "stealing and illegally offering state secrets abroad," and are being held at an unknown location under "residential surveillance at a designated location."
Neither has been allowed access to a lawyer; only visits from consular staff, which have been suspended since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
China has repeatedly called for Meng's release, and has warned Canada that it could face consequences for aiding the United States in her case.
The espionage charges are deemed "particularly serious" by state prosecutors, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Friday.
The announcement means Kovrig, 50, and Spavor, 44, could face sentences of anything between 10 years and life imprisonment.
"The facts are clear and the evidence is solid and sufficient. He should be held accountable for criminal responsibility under the above mentioned charge," Zhao said of Kovrig, before making the same statement about Spavor.
The announcement also paves the way for the men's trials, more than a year after their initial detention.
Canada 'disappointed' by indictments
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is "disappointed" in the indictments, and vowed to work with the Chinese government to bring the "two Michaels" home.
"In the case of the two Michaels, I can say that we are using a wide range of public and private measures to ensure that everything is being done to get these Michaels home," Trudeau told reporters.
"We do expect both Michaels will come back," he said, declining to answer a question about whether the men were effectively hostages.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organization that focuses on conflict resolution for which Kovrig was working at the time of his detention has previously said the accusations against him are "vague and unsubstantiated."
Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, said the charges against the two men are clearly a form of retaliation for Meng's arrest.
"I do believe that this is a form of political retaliation, and that China’s judicial system is politically manipulated," Wu said. "[Here], companies, government, and the judiciary are all one and the same thing."
"The final conviction and sentencing will also be the result of political considerations," he said. "[Their fate] is largely dependent on how the Meng Wanzhou extradition case fares in the Canadian courts, and [later] in the U.S."
A Chinese lawyer who asked to remain anonymous said a "particularly serious" espionage charge could even incur the death penalty.
"Such cases are very rare in China's criminal justice system," he said, adding that the trials would likely be held behind closed doors.
Huawei's Meng may still be extradited
Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, lost a legal bid to avoid extradition to the United States to face bank fraud charges last month, dashing hopes for an end to her house arrest in Vancouver.
She recently raised a new argument in a Canadian court in a bid to fight extradition,
Hong Kong-based democracy campaigner Joshua Wong said the indictments showed that foreign nationals aren't exempt from the threat of detention under national security laws, a version of which will soon be imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Under China's wolf-warrior diplomacy, China is posing the same level of threat to all foreign workers and investors in #HK in the pretext of #NationalSecurity," Wong wrote via his Twitter account.
The U.S. wants to extradite Meng to face charges of bank fraud linked to the breach of sanctions against Iran. Meng has also filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government, alleging procedural errors by officers who arrested her.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.