Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were free and bound for home late Friday after being imprisoned in China for nearly three years, while Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was heading in the other direction, her own legal saga ending in a deal with the United States.
The pair of flights made for a dramatic end to an international battle, both publicly and behind the scenes, that began nearly three years ago with the arrest of Meng at the Vancouver airport.
Spavor and Kovrig, known around the world as “the two Michaels,” left China at almost the precise moment that Meng, the chief financial officer at Huawei Technologies, was being flown out of Vancouver on her way back to China.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waited until the plane left Chinese air space before announcing the good news at a hastily called news conference Friday night on Parliament Hill.
“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau said.
“For the past 1,000 days they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience and grace and we are all inspired by that.”
The pair were accompanied on the flight by Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, and were expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday morning.
Just hours earlier, Meng had walked out of a British Columbia Supreme Court, where a judge agreed to a discharge order that withdrew a U.S. extradition request against her.
The discharge followed a virtual appearance by Meng in a New York courtroom where she pleaded not guilty to all charges and the judge signed off on a deferred prosecution agreement.
The effort to settle the Meng case gained new momentum in the last two weeks, and culminated with an agreement reached in Washington on Thursday night between Huawei and the U.S. Justice Department, said a source close to the negotiations who was not authorized to speak publicly about them due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Barton had spent several weeks in Washington in the spring, meeting with Huawei lawyers, Chinese and U.S. officials and others in an attempt to carve out a solution while the case was making its way through a Vancouver court.
In August, B.C. Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes reserved her decision on Meng’s extradition. The next hearing was set for Oct. 21, when Holmes was likely to indicate a date for her decision on the extradition.
The Huawei executive was originally detained in Vancouver in December 2018 at the behest of the U.S., where she faced charges related to American sanctions against Iran, and then Kovrig and Spavor were arrested in China days later in apparent retaliation.
China has publicly maintained that there is no connection between her case and the men’s imprisonment but has also dropped broad hints that if she were allowed to go free, that could benefit the two Canadians.
Then on Friday, a surprise court hearing in New York delivered the long-awaited breakthrough.
Assistant U.S. attorney David Kessler told the New York court on Friday the agreement would allow for the charges against Meng to be dismissed after Dec. 1, 2022 — four years from the date of her arrest — provided that she complied with all her obligations under the terms of the deal.
“Should the offices pursue the prosecution that is deferred by this agreement, Meng stipulates to the admissibility of the statement of facts … in any proceeding against her,” he said.
“Meng further agrees that she and her lawyers, and representatives authorized to speak on her behalf, will not make any statements after entry into this agreement that may contradict any of the facts in the statement of facts.”
The U.S. statement of facts spells out the thrust of the allegations against Meng — essentially, that she portrayed Skycom, which operated primarily in Iran, as a separate and distinct business partner when it was for all intents and purposes a wholly owned subsidiary.
“As Meng knew, Skycom was not a business partner of, or a third party working with, Huawei,” the document says. “Instead, Huawei controlled Skycom, and Skycom employees were really Huawei employees.”
Huawei and Skycom were also charged with bank fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and violating the U.S. International Emergency Economic Powers Act — the sanctions law. The status of those charges remained unclear.
A statement from Canada’s Department of Justice after the U.S. hearing said there was no longer a basis for the extradition proceedings against her.
“Meng Wanzhou is free to leave Canada,” the statement said. “Meng Wanzhou was afforded a fair process before the courts in accordance with Canadian law. This speaks to the independence of Canada’s judicial system.”’
On Friday night, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country joined the world in welcoming the news.
“The U.S. government stands with the international community in welcoming the decision by People’s Republic of China authorities to release Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig after more than two-and-a-half years of arbitrary detention. We are pleased that they are returning home to Canada,” he said in a statement.
Meng appeared in person in the B.C. Supreme Court on Friday afternoon where Holmes signed the order discharging her, vacating her bail conditions and officially closing the Canadian case against her.
“Thank you, my lady,” Meng told Holmes.
In a statement outside the court, Meng thanked Crown lawyers and the Canadian people for their tolerance.
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” she said.
Meng also noted how her life has been turned “upside down” by the case. She said she appreciated the court for its professionalism and the Canadian government for upholding the rule of law.
“It was a disruptive time for me as a mother, a wife and a company executive,” Meng said. “But I believe every cloud has a silver lining. It really was an invaluable experience in my life. The greater the difficulty, the greater the growth.”
The Huawei executive’s arrest three years ago saw relations between Canada and China deteriorate and a cascade of effects including the arrest of the two Canadian men.
Kovrig is a Canadian diplomat on leave to the International Crisis Group, a peace-building non-governmental organization. Spavor is an entrepreneur who tried to forge people and business ties to North Korea. They were detained on Dec. 10, 2018.
Comfort Ero, the vice president of the Crisis Group, offered effusive thanks that the 1,020-day ordeal of Kovrig had ended.
“To Beijing: We welcome this most just decision. To Ottawa: Thank you for your steadfast support for our colleague. To the United States: Thank you for your willingness to support an ally and our colleague. To the inimitable, indefatigable, and inspiring Michael Kovrig, welcome home,” said Ero.
Earlier this year, Kovrig and Spavor were both convicted of spying in closed Chinese courts — a process that Canada and dozens of allies said amounts to arbitrary detention on bogus charges in a closed system of justice with no accountability.
Spavor received an 11-year sentence, while Kovrig had yet to be sentenced.
– Joan Bryden, Mike Blanchfield, Hina Alam and James McCarten, The Canadian Press