Shrouded in secrecy, here is the inside story behind the two Michaels’ flight to freedom

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OTTAWA – Canadian Michael Spavor, jailed in Dandong, China, had no idea what was going on.

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After nearly three years in Chinese custody, everything was happening very fast.

A source with knowledge of the dramatic events that shook the world last week said the “Chinese took him” to Beijing.


His fellow Canadian prisoner Michael Kovrig, jailed in Beijing, was also unsure what the sudden flurry of activity meant.

By Friday, 24 September, the two men were taken together, taken through the motions of a Chinese medical examination, so that they could be later released on what the Chinese called bail.

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Nevertheless, they were still unclear as to what was happening or why, Canadian government officials believe, until they stood before Canada’s ambassador to China Dominic Barton and consular officials at the embassy.

“They left and then suddenly they found out they were talking to our ambassador, and then shortly after, they found themselves at an airport and getting on a plane,” a senior government source said. “So for them it was fast and quite dramatic.”

Most of the details about Michaels’ made-for-Hollywood release are shrouded in secrecy.

Canadian Forces Challenger pilot Captain Alexey Ouellette, who had already flown to US Air Force Base Elmendorf near Anchorage, Alaska, where he would pick up the Canadians hours later, was briefed minutes earlier about the importance of his flight. Didn’t know till now. The former captives boarded his plane.

Operational security was tight, Ouellet told Starr, and limited information was provided, so he only knew “this mission would be special from the start. We didn’t know what task we were being assigned.”

Ouellet said he had been “given more details in advance of the flight to Calgary when I was told that our passengers would be Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”

In an email to the star, Ouellet expressed the excitement that spread across the country after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Michaels would be going home.

Escorted by Ambassador Barton, they left Beijing at the same time that Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou had left Vancouver, freed after arriving at a petition with the US.

“It was an honor to have a small part to play in the effort to bring him home,” Ouellet said. “I will never forget the tremendous joy that our two VIPs had on the day we saw them boarding.”

Michael Spavor shows thumb impression after arriving at Calgary International Airport on Saturday.

All of Canada has now seen photos of Kovrig and Spavor’s arrival in Calgary.

They followed Challenger’s steps to the tarmac, seemingly fit, believing the Chinese government’s statement he needed medical probation, and Trudeau hugged him.

A small knot of foreign minister Marc Garneau and senior government officials were on hand, many of whom had worked to tie the moment together over the years, many tearing up to see Kovrig and Spavor in front of them.

This is a story about that journey and how it came together.

But it is far from complete.

This is partly because geopolitics is at play with the United States and China at the center, and governments, lawyers and company officials are reluctant to reveal details of all sides.

Neither of the two former captives, Kovrig or Spavor, has come forward to tell their stories, other than brief statements.

Despite the official denial, we know for certain that the men’s emancipation was a closely coordinated arrangement that relied on a plea deal in the United States to settle criminal charges against Chinese telecommunications executive Meng, whose arrest prompted China’s central government. angered the government. .

US Ambassador Kirsten Hillman told the Star that the two incidents were not linked – the judicial process was independent – ​​but that “delicate diplomatic discussions” kicked into high gear from late August to September and culminated in a “highly choreographed” exercise by Canadians in September. Revealed 24.

In August, talks between the Huawei executive’s legal team and US officials intensified.

In Canada, August 15 political parties were involved in an election campaign, the timing of which officials say had nothing to do with the events.

Yet at the top levels of what was now a government in caretaker mode, there was “cautious optimism” that things might eventually shift south of the border where Meng’s fate would be decided.

Meng was eventually released on a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) after he made several confessions that strengthened the US case against Huawei for attempting to evade US sanctions against doing business in Iran. Huawei’s chief financial officer pleaded not guilty and paid no fine. Charges against him will be completely dropped in 14 months if he and the company do not contradict the statement of facts set forth in the deal.

The star has spoken to multiple sources from different camps who have knowledge of how the events unfolded. No one agreed to be identified and all would speak only on background as sensitivities – legal, diplomatic and political – were involved.

They say a lot could have gone wrong. In fact, it happened once before.

Huawei hired a jet that was waiting on the Vancouver tarmac to bring Meng back to China, pending the end of the court proceedings. It was hoped that the whole saga could end.

That was May 27, 2020.

But a BC Supreme Court judge ruled against one of Meng’s early attempts to void the extradition warrant, which led to his arrest on December 1, 2018.

Three weeks later China formally charged Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor of espionage, 557 days after they were first detained following Meng’s arrest by the RCMP in December 2018 on a US extradition request.

Canada’s ties with China were deeply eroded by Meng’s arrest and Michaels’ detention as it was.

For months, China insisted that the Canadian government had to reverse its “mistake” of arresting Meng, even as it insisted that the arbitrary arrests of Kovrig and Spavor were justified. Beijing has banned the import of beef, pork and canola from Canada.

For months, Trudeau insisted that Canada was obliged to honor the extradition treaty with the US and that his government would not interfere in the matter that is now before the courts.

The law allows discretion and a justice minister may ultimately refuse to “surrender” a wanted person to the requesting country.

But Trudeau insisted that no such decision would be made until the court process took its course.

Outside legal experts, former politicians and academics argued that Canada should intervene early and not wait.

But this was never what the Trudeau government acknowledged and this was made clear by Trudeau, Barton, Hillman and others repeatedly to China, the Allies and the US.

“Basically, all the work is going on for a long time, trying to make sure there is no magic solution in Canada, absent legal process,” a senior government source said.

Canada used behind-the-scenes diplomacy and united international allies.

Other efforts are now emerging for the first time.

Star learns that four months before Dominic Barton was named to replace John McCallum as Canada’s ambassador to China, he had been tapped to assist Trudeau in winning Michaels’ release.

Barton, a former Asia-based McKinsey executive who had been in China for six years, attended the G20 leaders’ summit in Osaka, Japan in June 2019, apparently to help Canada’s access to China. An official said, “It was a deliberate decision.

At the formal summit, Canada sat next to China’s Xi Jinping in alphabetical order. The photos and videos showed a frosty, awkward period as Trudeau and Shea sat fully aware of each other, neither proceeding to engage. Only later, Trudeau and Xi had a brief exchange.

Canadian officials would not reveal further details of Barton’s role in Osaka, but suggest he helped break the diplomatic ice and began to pave the way for the opening of communication channels, which would eventually pay off on Friday, September 24. to be done.

Barton was named ambassador several months later, at the same time that China named a new ambassador to Ottawa, parallel appointments to signal diplomatic progress. Barton will personally conduct nearly monthly consular visits with the two Michaels, which were interrupted for nine months by the pandemic.

It was Barton who held separate virtual consular calls with Kovrig and Spavor on Thursday, September 23, just before their suspense-filled exit.

There were many more ups and downs on the way to that salvation, while behind the scenes, Meng’s defense team in the US sought a solution for the bank and denied charges of wire fraud.

In Canada in late spring, Meng’s lawyers scored what one source said was “a bit of a game changer”.

They were successful in the coercive disclosure of HSBC records in Hong Kong to reduce the US prosecution case that Meng had “misled” the bank on Huawei’s activities. Meng’s lawyers argued that records show other junior banking executives were aware of Huawei’s ties with Skycom – a subsidiary that was doing business in Iran.

“We caught them in a dead flat lie, including the (US) prosecutor,” a source said.

Although the new evidence was not accepted in the extradition proceedings, the Canadian judge said it could be used in Meng’s final trial if extradition proceeds. And the judge’s dim view of the emergence of that evidence may have made it clear to the US prosecutor that “this is the right time for him to step down from his insistence that he is guilty. Time for face-saving moves on his part,” The source said.

Fast forward to August, when several things happened, causing the legal and diplomatic dynamics to shift again.

On August 4, the final week of hearings in Meng’s extradition case began in BC. a…

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