by Don MacKinnon with Nicolas Revise in New York and Michel Comte in Ottawa / AFP
VANCOUVER – Canada freed a Chinese telecoms executive and two Canadians imprisoned in what China’s Western critics branded “hostage diplomacy” headed home Friday, drawing a close to an episode that has poisoned ties between the two countries and Washington.
Meng Wanzhou — the 49-year-old daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the billionaire founder of world-leading telecoms equipment supplier Huawei — was granted release in a Vancouver court hearing after three years of house arrest in Canada while fighting extradition to the United States.
This came hours after US prosecutors announced an agreement in New York under which charges against her are to be suspended and eventually dropped.
She then quickly boarded a flight to the city of Shenzhen, returning to China for the first time since her arrest in Vancouver’s international airport at the behest of US authorities on December 1, 2018.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau soon announced that the two Canadians — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — had “left Chinese airspace, and they’re on their way home.”
Their plane was expected to land Saturday in Canada, he told a news conference in Ottawa.
“These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal,” Trudeau said.
“For the past 1000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance, resilience, and grace,” he said. “And we are all inspired by that.”
Ottawa contends the pair had been “arbitrarily” arrested and imprisoned on “trumped up” espionage charges in the days after Meng was detained, while Beijing has called Meng’s case “a purely political incident.”
In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “the US 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.”
Speaking to reporters after the court hearing in Vancouver, before she headed to China, Meng said: “Over the past three years, my life has been turned upside down. It was a disruptive time for me as a mother, wife and a company executive.”
“But I believe every cloud has a silver lining. It really was an invaluable experience in my life,” she said.
“The saying goes, the greater the difficulty, the greater the growth.”
The resolution of the case removes a deep thorn in the relationship between Beijing, Washington and Ottawa, with China accusing the United States of a political attack on one of its technology titans.
Beijing meanwhile accused Ottawa of doing Washington’s bidding by arresting and holding Meng, who was known inside Huawei as the “princess” of the company and its possible future leader.
Following her 2018 arrest, she was confined to a palatial mansion with an ankle bracelet for monitoring her movements in the western Canadian city, as she fought extradition to the United States.
The United States had accused her of fraud against HSBC bank and wire fraud, saying she tried to hide violations of US sanctions on Iran by Huawei affiliate Skycom.
Washington says Huawei routed Skycom-linked payments through the US banking system, tying it to the sanctions violations, while Meng had served on the Skycom board.
But on Friday, US prosecutors settled for Meng agreeing to a statement of facts in the case.
In exchange, they agreed to defer the charges — which carried the risk of up to 30 years in prison — until December 1, 2022, and then drop them if Meng abides by the terms of the agreement.
“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,” acting US Attorney Nicole Boeckmann said in a statement.
“Meng’s admissions are evidence of a consistent pattern of deception to violate US law,” said FBI Assistant Director Alan Kohler.
US campaign against Huawei
The charges and Meng’s arrest were enmeshed in a broader campaign against Huawei, a private firm that Washington says is closely tied to the Chinese government and People’s Liberation Army.
US officials say Huawei’s phones, routers and switching equipment, used widely around the world, offer Chinese intelligence a potent backdoor into global communications.
US government agencies are banned from buying Huawei equipment, and Washington has pressured allies to follow suit.
But Beijing said the US attack is driven by politics and a desire to harm Chinese economic power.
Caught in between, Ottawa sought to rally allies, including Washington, to hike pressure on Beijing to release the “two Michaels” held for nearly three years.
Both were put on trial in March this year. In August, Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison, while there had been no decision in Kovrig’s case.
In a show of solidarity, representatives of 26 countries had gathered outside the building in Beijing where Kovrig’s closed-door trial was held.
Canadian diplomats were barred from attending Spavor’s trial in the northern city of Dandong.