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A Canadian jailed in China wants compensation from the Canadian government

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Canadian says he wants compensation from his government. Michael Spavor is one of two Canadians who were in China in 2018 when Chinese authorities jailed them. China acted after Canada detained a top executive from the tech company Huawei. Now Mr. Spavor says he was unwittingly caught up in a spying scandal. Here's NPR's John Ruwitch.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Spavor and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig were imprisoned for nearly three years in China on charges of spying. Canada and others have called their arrests hostage diplomacy. Indeed, they were picked up by the Chinese police within days of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou's arrest in Canada. And more than 1,000 days later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made this announcement almost immediately after Meng was allowed to return to China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: About 12 minutes ago, the aircraft carrying Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor left Chinese airspace, and they're on their way home.

RUWITCH: That was the summer of 2021. Now Canada's Globe And Mail reports that Spavor is seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement from the government of Canada. He alleges that he was caught up in the affair and jailed because information he shared with Michael Kovrig was passed along to the Canadian government and its intelligence sharing partners. NPR could not reach Spavor or Kovrig, and Spavor's lawyer declined to comment.

ROLAND PARIS: I find the entire thing very puzzling.

RUWITCH: Roland Paris is a former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, now at the University of Ottawa.

PARIS: Michael Kovrig was not a spy. He was doing what diplomats do, which is reporting back to headquarters what he was seeing and hearing. He wasn't running agents. He wasn't acting covertly.

RUWITCH: Spavor is a fluent Korean speaker and had cultivated a rare relationship with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He was instrumental in orchestrating former NBA star Dennis Rodman's 2013 trip to North Korea. Paris says even if he shared information with Kovrig, it probably wasn't espionage.

PARIS: There's no realistic universe in which Michael Kovrig could be understood as a spy.

RUWITCH: The Canadian government says the detention of the two Michaels was arbitrary, unjust and unacceptable. And in a statement, spokesman John Babcock said perpetuating the notion that either of them was involved in espionage is only perpetuating the false narrative under which they were detained. But China's embassy in Ottawa says recent reports highlight the fact that China is a country that's ruled by law and that the cases of Kovrig and Spavor were handled in strict accordance with the law.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.