China affirmed Thursday that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor will face a national security trial as Canada and its allies urged Beijing to release the pair, saying they were being arbitrarily imprisoned.

The two Canadian men — known in Canada and abroad as the "two Michaels" — marked two full years behind bars on Thursday, in separate Chinese prisons, on what Canada and dozens of its Western allies say are unfounded espionage charges.

China has faced accusations of so-called hostage diplomacy for acting in retaliation for the RCMP's December 2018 arrest in Vancouver of Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

None of that criticism has fazed China, and that was crystal clear again on Thursday when the spokeswoman for its foreign ministry dismissed a suggestion that if Meng's case were somehow resolved, Kovrig and Spavor could be released.

"You are very concerned about when they can get back home. So are we for Ms. Meng Wanzhou's safe return. Her case is of a completely different nature from the cases you mentioned," said Hua Chunying, according to an English translation of her remarks on her ministry's website.

She said Meng's case "is a political one" and "the two Canadian citizens were arrested, prosecuted and will be tried for suspected crimes endangering China's national security. The entire process is completely in accordance with law and the two Canadians' lawful rights have been guaranteed."

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Phillipe Champagne said the last two years "have been stolen from Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor" as well as their families and loved ones.

"These two Canadians are an absolute priority for our government, and we will continue to work tirelessly to secure their immediate release and to stand up for them as a government and as Canadians," the minister said in a statement.

"We are grateful to the many countries around the world that have expressed support for Canada and for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor."

#China affirms national security trial for #Kovrig, #Spavor after two years in prison. #twomichaels #cdnpoli

The United States marked the day by calling on China to immediately release them.

"We echo the calls from the Canadian government, the international community, and the families of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for these two men to be released immediately and returned home," said a statement from the acting American ambassador to Canada, Katherine Brucker.

The U.S. wants to extradite Meng on fraud charges.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently spoke to U.S. president-elect Joe Biden about the "two Michaels," fuelling speculation that the Americans might be considering withdrawing their case against Meng, which could pave the way to freedom for the two Canadian men.

Brucker's statement made no mention of the Meng case.

"I think we should keep all options open and using our relationship with international partners, diplomacy, working with the United States on this. I think everything has to be available," said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Singh also said he wasn't going to criticize the Trudeau government's handling of the case, saying the issue was complex and that he wasn't prepared to reduce it to a matter of "partisan posturing."

"These are our Canadians that are in horrible conditions," said Singh.

"I can't imagine what it's like for the families, and for Mr. Spavor or Mr. Kovrig. What they're going through is very terrible."

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole reiterated past criticism that the Trudeau government has been weak and ineffective in dealing with China on Kovrig and Spavor.

"So, to suggest that this has been handled well over the last two years is fantasy," O'Toole said Thursday.

Kovrig's boss at the International Crisis Group begged to differ.

"There's never been a moment where I felt they weren't focused on this," Robert Malley, who served on the national security team in the Barack Obama administration, said in an interview.

"So, I can't ask for more."

Malley also said while he may have "differences" with the Republican Trump administration they too have had not shied away from taking the plight of the two Michaels seriously.

"And that gives me hope that for the U.S. and Canada, this is a matter of urgency and a priority."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2020.

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