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Expert on China politics, law says there's still a chance two Michaels could be released

Last Updated Mar 19, 2021 at 7:49 am PDT

File Photo: Michael Spavor (Source: Twitter)

Expert on Chinese law and politics says the trial of a Canadian detained in China played out as expected

Jacques deLisle says there's still a possibility Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig will be released

Likelihood of a conviction in a Chinese criminal case is almost certain, says expert

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The trial of Michael Spavor, who along with another Canadian has been detained in China for more than two years, lasted just two hours and ended without a verdict, but an expert says the way it played out is pretty typical of what you’d see in that country.

Jacques deLisle, a professor of both law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in Chinese relations, says Chinese criminal trials tend to be short and formal.

“They’re quite often not open to the public where there’s a highly political element or a purported national security related crime — they’re all the more likely to be held secretly,” the director of the Asia Program and Centre for the Study of Contemporary China said Friday.

That’s in line with what apparently played out in China Friday. Canadian consular officials and media were barred from attending Spavor’s trial, and they will similarly be banned from attending Michael Kovrig’s hearing on Monday.

“It’s not unusual not to get a verdict or a sentence immediately after proceedings and there is a deliberative process. When the system is working as it’s supposed to work on paper, there is, of course, a consideration of the evidence in reaching a verdict,” deLisle explained.

“The way Chinese courts are structured, highly important questions and sensitive questions are reviewed by the adjudication committee, which is a bigger body within the court — somewhat more closely tied to the Chinese Communist Party, and so on — but this is an exceptional case. Clearly it would be considered a high-profile and sensitive case,” he added, noting the case is operating under a great “political shadow.”

He doesn’t anticipate too long of a delay before the verdict is reached. In China, the likelihood of conviction in criminal cases is essentially 100 per cent, deLisle notes.

It’s what would happen after the verdict is delivered that deLisle says is interesting.

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The arrests of Spavor and Kovrig are widely seen as retaliation for the detention of a Chinese tech executive in Canada — deLisle points to the political nature of their trials to say what could come next in the process.

“There’ll be some interval, there’ll be negotiations in a not terribly transparent nature to see if there’s a way to work out a release. If there is one, it’ll be done without an explicit quid-pro-quo deal, but clearly there are negotiations going on,” he explained.

The Michaels’ cases were expected to be raised at a meeting in Alaska on Thursday between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomats.

Blinken has pledged “absolute solidarity” with Canada in calling for Kovrig and Spavor to be freed.

In the end, deLisle believes “there’s still a decent chance” the two Michaels will be release, though it may not be very soon.

“There will be some negotiation and some face-saving interval if a deal is struck. Nothing’s going to come immediately out of the Alaska meetings — I don’t think that was ever on the cards. It’s a hugely crowded agenda, and as just saw yesterday, it’s a pretty ugly vibe at the meeting,” deLisle said.

“Where I think it matters is with Biden’s discussions with Trudeau, there was a promise that this was going to be put on the agenda, apparently, and I think it folds into a position the Biden administration is generally taking toward China, which is sending a signal that the U.S. is back, the U.S. is engaged, that human rights, rule of law, political fairness — those kinds of issues — are part of the U.S. agenda,” he added, noting the Michaels’ situations tie into that.

-With files from The Associated Press