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

An example of a Surrey Police cruiser, showcased at Mayor Doug McCallum’s State of the City Address at Civic Hotel in May of 2019. (File photo: Amy Reid)
Surrey Police Service looking to hire in-house lawyer

Solicitor to work within Office of the Chief Constable, serve on internal and external committees to ‘represent the SPS’s interests’

Surrey provincial court. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
New COVID-19 protocols set for provincial courthouses

The new rules were issued on Jan. 21, and took effect immediately

Tyler Tardi will serve as a fifth on Team Laycock at the 2021 Tim Hortons Brier. (Black Press Media file photo)
Tyler Tardi to serve as alternate for B.C. team at Brier

Langley/Cloverdale curler to serve as ‘fifth’ on Team Laycock at Calgary-hosted championships

Sources White Rock/South Surrey Food Bank is located at 2356 156 St. (File photo)
Door-to-door canvassers not working on behalf of Sources Food Bank, says manager

Accredited White Rock, South Surrey, Langley food bank does not canvas for donations

Surrey RCMP say that after checking on a “semi-conscious” driver in Whalley on Jan. 20, 2021, officers found about 21 grams of suspected cocaine, 68 grams of suspected fentanyl, about $1,400 in case, a stolen shotgun and ammunition. (Photo: Surrey RCMP handout)
Surrey RCMP say ‘semi-conscious’ driver found with drugs, gun

Officer saw ‘open alcohol and suspected drugs’ inside the vehicle, police say

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

The District of Saanich’s communications team decided to take part in a viral trend on Thursday and photoshopped U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders into a staff meeting photo. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Bernie Sanders makes guest appearance municipal staff meeting in B.C.

Vancouver Island firefighters jump on viral trend of photoshopped U.S. senator

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

Police in Vancouver looking for male suspect who allegedly spat and attacked a store manager for not wearing a mask, at 7-Eleven near Alma Street and West 10th Avenue just before noon on Dec. 17, 2020. (Vancouver police handout)
VIDEO: Man spits on 7-Eleven manager over mask rule, sparking Vancouver police probe

‘Unfortunately, the store manager sustained a cut to his head during the assault’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The Vancouver-based SAR team successfully rescued two lost snowshoers off of the west side of Tim Jones Peak in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 19. (North Shore Rescue photo)
B.C.’s busiest SAR team raises alarm after 2021 begins with fatality, multiple rescues

‘People beyond ski resort areas of Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress go without cell reception,’ SAR warns

Competitors make their way through the course at the 2019 Canadian Cross Country Championships, which was hosted by Abbotsford in 2019. (File photo)
Abbotsford to host 2023 Canadian Cross Country Championships

Clearbrook Park last hosted the event in 2019, Ottawa hosting 2021 and 2022 races

Officers investigate the scene after a pedestrian was struck and killed on Friday morning. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
Male pedestrian, 37, killed in Abbotsford after being struck by vehicle

Collision took place in 31800 block of South Fraser Way on Friday morning

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission school district

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways in Mission, B.C.

Most Read