Who Are the Two Canadians Reported Detained in China?

Two Canadian citizens have been reported detained in China over recent days amid a dispute over Canada’s detention of a Chinese business executive wanted in the U.S. on bank fraud charges. China has yet to provide any information or even formally acknowledge their detentions. 

 

One of the two men is a diplomat on hiatus working for an international think tank, the other is an entrepreneur and business consultant dealing with North Korea. 

Michael Kovrig

 

A Toronto native and resident of Hong Kong, Kovrig had most recently worked as a senior adviser for northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank on global affairs. 

 

A Chinese speaker, Kovrig went on leave without pay to take up his position nearly two years ago and no longer holds a diplomatic passport, along with the immunity that bestows. Before that, he worked as a Canadian diplomat in various portfolios, including in the consulate general in Hong Kong, where he helped arrange a visit by Prime Minister Dustin Trudeau in 2016. 

 

As first secretary and vice consul at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing from 2014 to 2016, Kovrig traveled around China conducting field research on politics and government policies and meeting with contacts, including political dissidents. Such work is common among diplomats and foreign journalists in China, but is viewed with deep suspicion by China’s ruling Communist Party, raising the possibility Kovrig could be charged with espionage. 

 

Kovrig, believed to be in his late 40s, was a frequent commentator on China affairs for the foreign media, including The Associated Press. 

 

Kovrig was very capable and a “very smart guy,” who was extremely knowledgeable about China, a former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, told the Toronto Star. 

 

Kovrig also worked for the United Nations Development Program after graduating from the University of Toronto and Columbia University. 

​ 

Michael Spavor

China-based Spavor is known for his contacts with high-ranking North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, with whom he has been photographed shaking hands and laughing. 

 

He was also key to bringing NBA player Dennis Rodman to North Korea in 2013 in what was considered a significant, if somewhat quirky, breakthrough in the outside world’s contact with the young head of the hard-line communist regime. 

 

In 2015, Spavor founded Paektu Cultural Exchange, a non-governmental organization that works to facilitate sports, cultural, tourism and business exchanges with North Korea. Its mission statement says it aims to “promote greater peace, friendship and understanding.” 

 

The exchange is one of a small group of organizations promoting interactions with North Korea in a manner that has sometimes brought controversy for its unwillingness to criticize the regime’s human rights abuses. Its Facebook page advertises a five-day trip to North Korea over New Year’s, including a visit to the Demilitarized Zone and a hot springs resort. 

 

A fluent Korean speaker with 16 years of experience working and studying in East Asia, Spavor graduated from university in his hometown of Calgary and also studied North Korean affairs at South Korea’s Kangwon National University, according to his Facebook page.

High-Speed Train Crashes in Ankara; 4 Dead

A high-speed train hit a railway engine and crashed into a pedestrian overpass at a station in the Turkish capital Ankara on Thursday, killing four people and injuring 43 others, officials and news reports said.

The 6:30 a.m. train from Ankara to the central Turkish city of Konya first collided with the engine that was checking the tracks at the capital city’s small Marsandiz station, Ankara Gov. Vasip Sahin told reporters at the scene. The high-speed train transits that station without stopping. 

Private NTV television said at least two cars derailed. Parts of the overpass collapsed onto the train.

Television footage showed emergency services working to rescue passengers from mangled cars and debris.

Rescue teams were looking for more survivors, Sahin said. “Our hope is that there are no other victims,” he said.

 

It was not immediately clear if a signaling problem caused the accident. Sahin said a technical investigation has begun. 

In July, 10 people were killed and more than 70 injured when most of a passenger train derailed in northwestern Turkey, after torrential rains caused part of the rail tracks to collapse. Last month, 15 people were injured when a passenger train collided with a freight train in Turkey’s central province of Sivas 

 

Konya, some 260 kilometers (160 miles) southwest of Ankara, is home to the tomb of the Sufi mystic and poet Jalaladdin Rumi, attracting thousands of pilgrims and tourists.

Second Canadian Reportedly Detained in China

A second Canadian citizen is reported to have been detained in China following the arrest earlier this month of a senior Chinese tech executive.

Canadian officials identified the citizen as Michael Spavor, director of Paektu Cultural Exchange, an office that arranges sports and educational exchanges with North Korea. 

There is no other information on where he may be held or why he was arrested.

China said Wednesday former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was arrested in Beijing on charges of jeopardizing China’s national security.

A spokesman from China’s state-run news agency told VOA’s Mandarin service that Kovrig is suspected of “engaging in activities that endanger” the country’s security. He gave no other information. 

Kovrig was detained Monday, a little more than a week after Canadian police arrested Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport on a U.S. warrant.

She is accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

A Canadian judge freed her on bail late Tuesday while she awaits a hearing on extradition to the United States. Meng must remain in British Columbia and live in a house owned by her husband. She will also be under 24-hour surveillance.

​Meng is chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei Technologies, a company founded by her father that is one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of mobile phones. Her family is worth billions of dollars.

U.S. officials say Meng lied to banks about Huawei’s control of Hong Kong-based Skycom, a company that allegedly sold U.S. goods to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

If convicted in the United States, Meng faces up to 30 years in prison.

Her arrest has infuriated China, which called it “extremely bad.” China summoned the U.S. ambassador to lodge a formal protest. 

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would intervene in the case against Meng if it means reaching a trade deal with China.

“Whatever’s good for the country, I would do,” Trump told Reuters on Tuesday. “If I think it’s good for what will certainly be the largest trade deal ever made, which is a very important thing. What’s good for national security, I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary.”

White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman and VOA’s Mandarin Service contributed to this report.

Mexico’s Leader, Trump Discuss Migrants, Jobs

Mexico’s leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he spoke by telephone Wednesday with U.S. President Donald Trump about migration and job creation.

The issue came to the fore last month when a caravan of about 7,000 migrants arrived in the border city of Tijuana and some attempted to enter the United States.

“In respectful and friendly terms, we spoke about the migration issue and the possibility of implementing a joint program of development and job creation in Central America and our country,” Lopez Obrador wrote in his Twitter account.

The Mexican president has called on the United States to join in a “Marshall Plan” effort to commit about $20 billion in public and private investment in Central America to create jobs, so people there won’t have to emigrate.

Cordial relationship

Despite their differences in background and policy, the relationship between the two leaders has been quite cordial. Lopez Obrador, who took office Dec. 1, has said he hopes to make migration a choice, not a necessity, for poor people of the region.

Earlier Wednesday, Mexico’s top security official said the government will close off illegal entries at its southern border with Guatemala, but didn’t say exactly how the country plans to accomplish that daunting task.

Interior Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero said the new administration will end the practice of undocumented or illegal crossings over the Suchiate River, which marks much of the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

“In the south there will be only one entry, on the bridge,” she said. “Anyone who wants to enter illegally, we are going to say: ‘Get in line and you can enter our country.’”

Sanchez Cordero offered no details on how that would be done, however.

In late October, Mexican authorities briefly tried to block a migrant caravan from crossing the river with ranks of police and military personnel, a helicopter and boats, but the migrants crossed anyway.

Sanchez Cordero said the migrant caravan that crossed the southern border in October “is no longer an issue.”

Tensions remain

“Do you know why it is no longer an issue? Because in five days this administration solved the issue, five days,” she said, referring to the first week since Lopez Obrador took office. “The United States was impressed.”

The new administration has mobilized material and equipment to improve conditions at the migrants’ shelter in the northern border city of Tijuana, but problems continue because the Central American there are frustrated by the slow pace at which U.S. officials are processing asylum requests.

Sanchez Cordero said Mexico will promote a “Christmas at Home” campaign to encourage many of the migrants to return to their home countries for the holidays.

Two Technicians Die at US Research Station in Antarctica

Two technicians performing maintenance at a U.S. research station in Antarctica died on Wednesday while working on a building that houses a generator for a nearby radio transmitter, the National Science Foundation (NSF) said.

The pair, both employed as subcontractors at the NSF-managed McMurdo Station in Antarctica, were found unconscious on the floor of the building after a helicopter pilot flying over the area saw what appeared to be smoke coming from the structure and landed to investigate.

One of the technicians was pronounced dead by medical personnel called to the scene. The other was pronounced dead a short time after being flown to the McMurdo medical clinic, the NSF said in a statement.

The two workers, described as fire technicians, were performing preventive maintenance on the building’s fire-suppression system before they were found, the agency said.

No further details were immediately provided, and the incident was under investigation, the foundation said.

The NSF said it was not releasing any personal information about the two workers, except to say they were employed by a Virginia-based company, PAE, which in turn was hired by the U.S. Antarctica Program’s logistics contractor Leidos, headquartered in Colorado.

The research station, established by the United States in 1955, is situated near Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound, named for a British naval officer who was part of the expedition that first charted the area in 1841.

The largest outpost in Antarctica, it lies at the tip of Ross Island in the New Zealand-claimed territory known as the Ross Dependency. The incident in question occurred on Dec. 12 local time, which goes by New Zealand time.

Daytime highs in December, in the middle of the Antarctic summer, average 31.5 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 3 degrees Celsius. More than 1,000 people, including scientists and support personnel, work at the station this time of year.

Britain’s May Survives Confidence Vote, Fails to Tame Critics

There wasn’t much of a honeymoon Wednesday for Britain’s embattled Theresa May after she survived a bid to oust her by critics from her own Conservative party.

Standing outside No. 10 Downing Street after an internal party vote she won but not emphatically, May pledged she will “get on with the job of delivering Brexit.”

But the British leader’s opponents from both the euroskeptic and pro-European Union wings of her party were not silenced, warning her survival has done nothing to improve the chances of getting the House of Commons to approve her contentious Brexit deal.

More than a third of the Conservative lawmakers voted against her, preferring to see the party elect a new leader, underscoring the mountain she still has to scale in getting her Brexit deal through a Parliament that has grave doubts about the agreement.

​Many in party vote against May

Conservative lawmakers rejected a no-confidence motion to May’s leadership, 200-117, but the win has merely exposed the bitter split in her party over Britain’s departure from the EU and provides no clues as to how May can plot a course out of the Brexit maze, analysts say.

Ominously, most lawmakers who don’t have government jobs or positions voted for May to go.

Even May loyalists conceded privately that her win was hardly a ringing endorsement.

Her critics, as well as Britain’s opposition parties, quickly pointed out that surviving an attempt to topple her changes nothing when it comes to the arithmetic in the House of Commons, where a majority oppose a Brexit withdrawal deal, which took months of haggling with the EU to negotiate.

Before May had even finished talking about a “renewed mission” and her hope of “bringing the country back together,” hardcore euroskeptics in her party announced in a statement, “We cannot and will not support the disastrous withdrawal agreement the prime minister has negotiated.”

General election

They warned that if she pushes ahead with it, the likelihood is that she will be setting the country on course for a general election.

May runs a minority government. With the main parties splintered, the House of Commons is deadlocked, and there’s no majority for anything when it comes to Brexit, including crashing out without a deal, staying in, or holding a second referendum. There is only a majority against her deal.

The warning from Conservative euroskeptics was echoed by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 lawmakers in the House of Commons prop up the minority Conservative government.

The DUP is deeply opposed to the withdrawal agreement that would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of Britain, in order to avoid the imposition of customs checks on the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They fear the different treatment will end up weakening the ties between the province and London.

May spoke to DUP leader Arlene Foster shortly before the confidence vote, trying to persuade her to withdraw her opposition to the deal.

Foster later said she “emphasized that tinkering around the edges would not work. … We wanted fundamental legal text changes.”

Brexit vote delayed

On Monday, May delayed a scheduled House of Commons vote on the exit deal as it became clear lawmakers were set to reject it. Defeat would likely force May out of No. 10 Downing Street and possibly trigger the fall of the Conservative government and an early general election.

May’s deal, which tries to square the circle between Britons who want to remain in the EU and Brexiters who want a clean, sharp break, would see Britain locked in a customs union with the EU for several years while it negotiates a more permanent, but vaguely defined, free trade settlement with its largest trading partner.

In the temporary customs union, Britain would be unable to influence EU laws, regulations and product standards it would have to observe. It would be not be able to implement free trade deals with non-EU countries.

Opposition parties also warned that May’s remaining as prime minister would not lessen parliamentary opposition to the deal.

“Tonight’s vote changes nothing,” Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “Theresa May has lost her majority in Parliament. Her government is in chaos, and she’s unable to deliver a Brexit deal that works for the country and puts jobs and the economy first.”

It is unclear when a Brexit vote in the House of Commons might take place.

​Back to Brussels

Some government managers said the vote could happen next week or even be delayed until next month. All May has said is that it will take place by Jan. 21, a cut-off date for Parliament to get legislation through in time for Britain’s scheduled departure March 29.

May will fly Thursday to Brussels to appeal once again to her fellow EU leaders to agree to concessions. But she tried that Tuesday, criss-crossing Europe on a whistle-stop diplomatic tour that took her to Berlin and The Hague, but got no agreement on anything substantive.

Former Venezuela Oil Minister Dies in Jail

Nelson Martinez, the jailed former head of Venezuela’s state-run oil giant PDVSA who was arrested last year as part of anti-corruption purge, died in state custody Wednesday, authorities said.

The chief prosecutor’s office said Martinez suffered from a serious and chronic illness that led to his death at a medical facility where he was undergoing treatment.

The death is likely to focus attention on the conditions in which authorities are holding key opponents and former government officials. Martinez died two months after a Caracas councilman, Fernando Alban, fell to his death from a high-rise police building in what the government classifies a suicide but which the opposition insists was murder.

Martinez, who also served as oil minister, was arrested last year along with dozens of other executives and officials as part of an anti-corruption purge at PDVSA led by socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

​Forced to lead PDVSA

At the time, Venezuela’s top prosecutor said Martinez conspired with another former PDVSA president, Eulogio del Pino, to embezzle state funds through unauthorized financing deals by PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo. Martinez headed the Houston-based Citgo between 2013 and 2017.

Rafael Ramirez, who was Martinez’s boss before being pushed out himself as head of PDVSA, said his former colleague never wanted to assume leadership of the oil monopoly, knowing it would take a toll on his health after he underwent open heart surgery a few years back.

But Martinez was forced into taking the job by Maduro, Ramirez said in an interview, adding that he had personally informed the president of Martinez’s heart problem.

“This death is Maduro’s responsibility,” said Ramirez, who angrily broke with the government last year amid accusations that he also was stealing from PDVSA. “The saddest thing is he didn’t know why he was being held.”

World’s largest oil reserves

Corruption has long been rampant in Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves, but officials are rarely held accountable, a major irritant to citizens struggling to eat three meals a day amid widespread shortages and seven-digit inflation.

The U.S.-educated Martinez, an industry veteran, was replaced at PDVSA by an army general with no previous experience in the oil sector.

Ramirez said the government tries to keep its jailed political opponents safe for fear of sparking an international outcry. But he said the dozens arrested as part of the oil industry purge last year, including five former Citgo executives with U.S. passports, have mostly been forgotten and are seen unfairly as something less than political prisoners because they have been charged with corruption.

He said Martinez was being held in isolation at a military intelligence headquarters in Caracas and had been repeatedly denied visits from his family doctors, leading to depression that had worsened after he became sick with kidney problems a few weeks ago.

“It’s as if the PDVSA prisoners don’t exist,” said Ramirez, who has been living in exile since resigning as Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations last year.

Virgin Galactic’s New Flight Test to Soar Closer to Edge of Space

Virgin Galactic is preparing for a new flight test Thursday that aims to fly higher and faster than before toward the edge of space.

The U.S. company run by British tycoon Richard Branson is aiming to be the first to take tourists on brief trips into microgravity.

Virgin Galactic’s fourth flight test on the VSS Unity is scheduled for Thursday, weather permitting.

The flight will take off from a spaceport in Mojave, California.

The vessel does not launch from Earth but is carried to a higher altitude — about nine miles (15 kilometers) high — attached to an airplane.

Then, two pilots on the VSS Unity fire the engines toward the frontier of space, typically defined as an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers).

In July, after burning the rocket motor for 42 seconds, the VSS Unity reached a height of 32 miles, a part of the atmosphere called the mesosphere.

Commercial airplanes typically fly at an altitude of about six miles.

The VSS Unity reached a top speed of over 1,530 miles per hour, or beyond Mach 2.

“Overall the goal of this flight is to fly higher and faster than previous flights,” said a statement from Virgin Galactic.

“If all goes to plan our pilots will experience an extended period of microgravity as VSS Unity coasts to apogee, although — being pilots — they will remain securely strapped in throughout.”

Another U.S. rocket company, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is also racing to be the first to send tourists to space, but using a small rocket to get there.

Virgin’s first flight date has been pushed back multiple times, following a test flight accident that killed a co-pilot in 2014.

Branson told CNN in November he hoped to send people to space “before Christmas.”

More than 600 clients have already paid $250,000 for a ticket.

EU to Offer Ukraine Help Over Azov Sea at Summit 

European Union leaders will offer Ukraine help for its regions affected by Russia’s actions in the Azov Sea when they meet Thursday, according to a draft summit statement seen by Reuters on Wednesday. 

But there is no mention of consideration of further sanctions against Russia, reflecting division among member states. Diplomats expect a rollover of existing sanctions but no consensus on increases sought by more hawkish governments. 

Condemning Russia, the EU will reiterate its support for Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea’s 2014 annexation by Moscow and — referring to the capture of Ukrainian naval vessels off Crimea last month — said: “There is no justification for the use of military force by Russia.” 

The statement demanded the release of Ukrainian sailors seized during the incident, the return of their vessels and free passage to all ships passing through the Kerch Strait. 

It concluded with the offer of financial and other measures to help areas of eastern Ukraine whose maritime access was affected by Moscow’s action. 

“The EU stands ready to adopt measures to strengthen further its support in favor of the affected areas of Ukraine,” the statement said. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met summit chair Donald Tusk in Brussels on Wednesday and will hold talks at NATO headquarters in the city on Thursday. EU leaders will discuss Ukraine and Russia over a summit dinner later in the day.

Hungary Creates New Court System Under Government Control

Hungary’s parliament has approved the creation of a new court system to deal with matters related to public administration, giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government close control over what will become a crucial part of the judiciary.

According to the bill approved Wednesday, the justice minister will have final say over the appointment, promotion and salary of judges in the new system, which could hear cases on a wide range of matters, including those involving the police, tax authorities, public procurement procedures, local governments, elections and media issues.

Critics say the minister’s prerogatives call into question the independence of the judges and the impartiality of their rulings in matters in which the government or the state is part of a court case.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee civic group said the new court system allows the government “to `legally’ fill the judicial body with people loyal to it.”

The new court system is set to begin hearing cases from 2020. It’s expected to be led by Andras Patyi, a former head of the National Election Committee, who earlier this year could be seen apologizing to Prime Minister Viktor Orban for fining him after Orban twice campaigned among children without their parents’ consent ahead of the April 2018 elections.

The new court system “is a political decision with which the government is trying to increase its influence over the courts,” said David Vig, director of Amnesty International’s Hungary office. “The step fits in well with the government’s measures constantly reducing the state of law.”

Hungary is currently facing a legal process launched by the European Union because of EU concerns about risks in Hungary to the rule of law and democratic values. Hungary could lose its EU voting rights as a result of the Article 7 procedure, though that is unlikely.

Since Orban’s return to power in 2010, Hungary has had to reverse or amend changes to the judicial system — including the lowering of judges’ retirement age — after pressure from the EU. Poland, whose government is closely allied with Orban, is also facing an Article 7 procedure because of concerns about judicial independence there.

The Helsinki Committee called on lawmakers, to no avail, to refrain from voting on the new court system until the Venice Commission, a group of experts advising the Council of Europe, issues its opinion about the new court setup.