OTTAWA — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are on their way home.
In a dramatic and swift turn in the nearly three year saga, Meng Wanzhou was released by Canada, and was airborne around the same time, en route back to China, a Canadian official told the Star.
The two Canadian detainees were released by China in the hours after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou cut a deal with U.S. prosecutors who dropped an extradition warrant and allowed Canada to release her.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the nation in a hastily organized news conference Friday night that the men boarded a Canadian flight with Canada’s ambassador Dominic Barton and had left round 7:30 p.m. Ottawa time and were headed back to Canada. He emerged about 12 minutes after their plane had left Chinese airspace, keeping the news close until their flight was truly clear of China’s control.
“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.”
Trudeau thanked their families for supporting the men and the government in the work they did “to secure their release,” as well as allies and partners in “the international community who stood steadfast in solidarity with Canada.”
Trudeau, flanked by his foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau, said, “It is good news for all of us, that they are on their way home to their families.”
It was not immediately clear what airport they were headed to.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole tweeted: “Our family shares the elation of millions of Canadians that our citizens are coming home. Thank you to all diplomats involved!”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh also tweeted to the two men, “Canadians rejoice knowing you’ll be home soon with your friends and families.
To all the consular officials and diplomats that did their part, thank you!”
The Canadian government had been extremely tight-lipped all day as developments broke south of the border, starting with early news Meng’s defence team had reached a deal.
Despite China long denying the arrest of the two Canadians was a tit-for-tat retaliatory move to protest the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, their release finally shows the extent of the hostage diplomacy it was practicing.
The nearly three year saga of Meng Wanzhou’s detention in Canada ended Friday.
Meng was discharged late afternoon by a Canadian court after a U.S. court approved a deal reached between her lawyers and U.S. prosecutors.
About four hours later, the two Canadians — who had been detained in separate prisons, Kovrig in Beijing and Spavor in Dandong province near the Korean border — were on board a Canadian flight back home.
When Meng emerged from a Vancouver court after her discharge, she thanked the Canadian judge for “fairness,” the Crown authorities for their “professionalism” and the Canadian government for “upholding the rule of law.”
She also thanked the Chinese embassy in Canada for its “support.”
Meng spoke in English, and then in Mandarin.
“Over the past three years, my life has been turned upside down. It was a disruptive time for me as a mother or wife, and a company executive. But I believe every cloud has a silver lining. It really was an invaluable experience in my life,” said Meng.
She bowed and took no questions before departing, surrounded by her private security detail.
Canada’s Justice Department said as a result of the U.S. agreement with Meng for a deferred prosecution, there was “no basis for the extradition proceedings to continue,” the statement said. “Canada is a rule of law country. 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.”
After months of negotiations, officials with the U.S. Department of Justice finalized a deal with Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on Friday that allows the Chinese corporate star to avoid bank fraud charges she faced in the United States, and paved the way for extradition proceedings against her in Canada to be dropped.
In exchange, she admitted the U.S. case against her was factual — a black eye for the Chinese company, and a vindication of American prosecutors’ arguments, but one that brings no fine or criminal liability, unless Meng reneges on the deal in the next 14 months.
Meng ditched her electronic monitoring anklet as she left the Vancouver court.
She is not under any obligations to physically report to American authorities during what amounts effectively to a probationary period over the next 14 months.
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The two Canadian men were arrested in China in 2018 in what was seen as retaliation for Meng’s arrest in Canada.
Her lawyer, Bill Taylor, said Meng is “free to return home to be with her family.” She was expected to depart Canada Friday evening.
Appearing in a New York court by video on Friday morning, the chief financial officer for tech giant Huawei formally pleaded not guilty to four charges of conspiracy, bank and wire fraud.
However, she also told the U.S. court she agreed with a statement of facts that said she and Huawei had falsely represented its business activities in Iran to the investment bank HSBC, and that those activities were in violation of American sanctions against doing business in Iran.
Meng had previously insisted that Huawei was not related to a company called Skycom, which she described as a “third party” doing work in Iran.
On Friday, she acknowledged that was not the case.
“Those statements were untrue because, as Ms. Meng knew … Huawei controlled Skycom, and Skycom employees were really Huawei employees,” states the deferred prosecution agreement, the text of which was released Friday afternoon.
“In entering into the deferred prosecution agreement, Meng has taken responsibility for her principal role in perpetrating a scheme to defraud a global financial institution,” said Nicole Boeckmann, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in a news release.
A guilty plea or conviction would have had implications for both her reputation and her ability to continue in her role as a global corporate executive.
If Meng breaks the terms of the agreement, the charges and the prosecution can be revived and pursued anew.
The deal covers a four-year period that was backdated to her Dec. 1, 2018 arrest and ends on Dec. 1, 2022. After that, the U.S. government will drop the charges if she complies with its terms, said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Kessler.
The agreement finally led to a breakthrough in the cases of the two Canadians — known as the “two Michaels.”
China has denied the cases are related, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has flatly rejected that claim, saying Beijing made clear to Ottawa that the detentions were linked.
Trudeau had resisted calls to strike a deal that would release Meng, saying he rejects “hostage diplomacy” and to do otherwise would put Canadian citizens at risk abroad.
Meng is the daughter of Huawei founder and chief executive officer Ren Zhengfei, who has close ties with China’s Communist Party rulers. She left her Vancouver house on Friday surrounded by private security guards, and wearing the electronic bracelet that has monitored her whereabouts since she was placed under house arrest in Canada.
Kovrig and Spavor have been jailed in China since December 2018.
Spavor, a businessman, was convicted by a Chinese court on national security charges and sentenced in early August to 11 years in jail. Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat who was on leave at the time of his detention, has been tried, but the verdict has not yet been announced.
When Spavor was convicted in early August, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the immediate release of the two Michaels.
“The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable,” Blinken said. “People should never be used as bargaining chips.”
Blinken released a brief statement Friday that underlined the American view that the two men’s detention was wrongful all along.
“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.”
Meng’s arrest and separate allegations that Huawei has been stealing American intellectual property have become major irritants between the U.S. and China, and left Canada caught between the two economic superpowers.
The stakes could not have been higher for the two Canadian men, and others in jail, and the economic stakes were on display after China also slapped several trade measures to block Canadian exports of beef, pork and canola.
Jerome Beaugrand-Champagne, who teaches Chinese law at McGill University, said the deal was undoubtedly approved by Beijing authorities.
“This plea deal would not have been accepted if the Chinese Communist Party would not have said yes to it, since it has some international implications with their relationships with Canada and the U.S.,” he told CBC News.
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports
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