A young man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China for more than a year, outside B.C. Supreme Court where Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was attending a hearing, in Vancouver, on Tuesday January 21, 2020. In his darkest moments, Michael Kovrig draws strength from knowing that his fellow Canadians and people around the world are working to free him and Michael Spavor from their respective Chinese prison cells. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A young man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China for more than a year, outside B.C. Supreme Court where Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was attending a hearing, in Vancouver, on Tuesday January 21, 2020. In his darkest moments, Michael Kovrig draws strength from knowing that his fellow Canadians and people around the world are working to free him and Michael Spavor from their respective Chinese prison cells. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

‘Two Michaels’ mark two jailed years in China, but Canada says reports of trial inaccurate

Kovrig and Spavor are marking two years in Chinese prisons on what Canada says are trumped-up charges

In his darkest moments, Michael Kovrig draws strength from knowing that his fellow Canadians and people around the world are working to free him and Michael Spavor from their respective Chinese prison cells.

As much as that matters, Kovrig’s wife Vina Nadjibulla says he is also subjecting himself to a strict regimen to strengthen his mind and body because he views that as the key to his survival.

She says that not only is Kovrig determined to survive his ordeal, he wants to reclaim his freedom better and stronger than when he lost it.

Kovrig and Spavor are marking two years in separate Chinese prisons, on what Canada and dozens of its Western allies say are trumped-up espionage charges in retaliation for the RCMP’s December 2018 arrest of Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, one of the few outsiders to see them, said this week Kovrig and Spavor are anything but broken men, and that seeing how they’ve endured their captivity was inspiring.

Kovrig is “marshalling every ounce of his willpower and strength” to cope with his difficult situation, Nadjibulla said in an interview this week.

“He says that knowing that Canadians care, knowing that the world cares, and people are fighting for his release, makes him feel stronger, and keeps hope alive,” she said, drawing on letters that he has written in captivity.

“He hopes that he will be able to come out from this experience not only having survived it, but with a commitment, with resolve to rebuild his life better, to contribute even more to society.”

A statement from Global Affairs on Thursday to The Canadian Press said that Canadian Embassy officials in Beijing spoke directly with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials to clarify a media report earlier in the morning that suggested the two Michaels had gone on trial in China.

The statement said that “contrary to what has been reported in the media this morning, there has been no development in the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”

The statement also said that “the confusion was caused by an inaccurate characterization of the process made by the Chinese MFA spokesperson.”

The Canadian Press also reached out, through intermediaries, to request interviews with Spavor’s friends and family but was unsuccessful. Spavor worked as an entrepreneur in the Chinese city of Dandong, where he is imprisoned near the North Korean border.

Kovrig was most recently an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington and before that he was a member of Canada’s diplomatic corps, a career focused on preventing deadly conflicts.

“He hopes that he can continue to do that, and he can rejoin the broader conversation in the world with life and not just continue to be isolated and cut off in the way that he is,” said Nadjibulla.

She said Kovrig is devouring books from the meditations of stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” to Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” He’s reread one of his pre-prison favourites, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, because it contains a key message for him.

“It essentially posits that it’s important to cultivate an ability to not only survive traumas or disruptions but to become better and stronger as a result. So, this idea of building back better. I know it’s very much on the minds of many of us as we recover from the pandemic,” she said.

READ MORE: Kovrig, Spavor are ‘inspiring’ and ‘robust’ in Chinese prison, says Canada’s envoy

Kovrig is also drawing on stoic philosophical teaching that, among other things, calls for the transformation of “fear into prudence, pain into information,” said Nadjibulla. Kovrig has added “anger into the termination of grievance” to that philosophy.

He has been drawn to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the sixth book of the New Testament, “which says suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope. And Michael is doing everything possible to keep hope alive,” said Nadjibulla.

Kovrig is subjecting himself to a strict physical regimen, forever on the move in his small cell striving to walk the equivalent of five kilometres daily because he knows his mind cannot thrive if his body is not strong, said Nadjibulla.

Robert Malley, Kovrig’s boss at the International Crisis Group, says his imprisoned colleague can hold the plank, a core body exercise of endurance, for 18 minutes. In solidarity, Crisis Group colleagues recently had a plank competition but the closest anyone got was seven minutes. They’re also walking 7,000 steps a day, the equivalent of five kilometres.

Malley said he and his colleagues are in awe of Kovrig’s discipline.

“None of us can be prepared for that, unless you’re in the military and you’re told this could happen. But he seems to have had all of the reflexes, instincts that are necessary,” said Malley.

When Kovrig is released one day his colleagues hope stories of their attempts to replicate some of his exercises will help him heal and, perhaps, bridge the gap growing between them and him, said Malley.

Kovrig only found out the scope of the global pandemic during Barton’s on-site virtual visit in October — his first contact with Canadian diplomats since January because Chinese authorities wouldn’t allow any contact due to COVID-19, said Nadjibulla.

He was shocked at the pandemic’s scale and compared it to a zombie apocalypse and the movie “Contagion.”

Kovrig is also aware that he is one of “two Michaels” and understands that both he and Spavor “are caught in this bigger situation,” she said. It’s not a topic that can be discussed during the now-resumed 30-minute consular visits.

Nadjibulla said she was happy to hear that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to U.S. president-elect Joe Biden about the two Michaels in their recent conversation. Trudeau refused to discuss the content of that conversation last week, or whether Biden might revisit the Justice Department’s attempted extradition and prosecution of Meng.

If the U.S. withdrew its charges, Meng could go free, and that might give China reason to free the two Michaels.

“Our Michael and Michael Spavor are caught in a bigger geopolitical struggle,” Nadjibulla said. “They’re pawns in a bigger political game involving the U.S., China and Canada. And they have been in the situation for two long years, for no other reason than being Canadian citizens.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

China

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Volunteers participate in a work-bee at J.J. Collett Natural Area on March 27. (Photo Submitted)
J.J. Collett natural area proceeding with projects

The nature area appeared on a list of parks and nature areas that were “underutilized” by UCP

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Alberta joins Ontario in lowering minimum age for AstraZeneca vaccine

More than 700,000 doses of AstraZeneca have been administered in this country

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta identifies 1,516 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

Central zone has 1,849 active cases

A damaged unicorn statue is shown in a field outside of Delia, Alta. in this undated handout photo. It’s not often police can report that a unicorn has been found, but it was the truth Saturday when RCMP said a stolen, stainless-steel statue of the mythical beast had been located in a field not far from where he’d been taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Mounties get their unicorn; stolen statue of mythical beast found in Alberta field

Police are still looking for suspects, and have called in their forensics experts to help

There were six additional deaths across Alberta reported over the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 1,926 since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

The Rogers logo is photographed in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Rogers investigating after wireless customers complain of widespread outage

According to Down Detector, problems are being reported in most major Canadian cities

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Nothing stopping provinces from offering AstraZeneca vaccine to all adults: Hajdu

Health Canada has licensed the AstraZeneca shot for use in people over the age of 18

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

A vial of some of the first 500,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Canada’s 2nd blood clot confirmed in Alberta after AstraZeneca vaccine

The male patient, who is in his 60s, is said to be recovering

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

Most Read