Two Canadians detained in China, Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig, were formally arrested

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Michael Kovrig (left) and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians held in China, are shown in these 2018 images taken from the video.

The Associated Press

The Chinese government formally arrested Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians accused of violating China's national security and held incommunicado for months, without access to family or lawyers.

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Neither man was formally charged with any crime. But they were arrested, confirmed Global Affairs Canada in a statement to The Globe and Mail Wednesday night.

"Canada strongly condemns their arbitrary arrest while condemning their arbitrary detention on December 10," the department said in a statement. "We reiterate our request that China immediately release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor."

Neither man was formally charged with any crime, but now they have been arrested, a Canadian government source told, The Globe and Mail granted anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly about the matter.

China has accused both Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Mr. Spavor, an entrepreneur, of crimes related to espionage. Both men were detained a few days after December 1, 2018, arrested in Vancouver by the Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. Meng Wanzhou executive, which sparked an escalating crisis between Canada and China.

In formally arresting them, the Chinese authorities have moved men out of residential surveillance into a designated location, a process by which they can keep detainees up to six months without charges under psychologically punitive conditions. Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were arrested before the six-month deadline, which was June 10th.

Both men are now detained in a formal detention center, which is more like a prison.

Their arrests seem to be a step to provide them with a slightly initial change towards what could be considered a modest improvement in living conditions. They had previously been "held in virtual isolation," said Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat who is director of the Chinese Institute at the University of Alberta.

In residential surveillance, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were interrogated up to eight hours a day and kept in rooms with 24-hour lighting. He was not allowed to go outside, kept in a room where they could not see the light of day and refused access to a lawyer or family. 30-minute monthly consular visits were given to diplomats, the most recent of which took place this week.

Ms. Meng lives in a multimillion-dollar home in Vancouver and is free to move around the city until 11 pm. curfew. Ms. Meng recently wrote, in an open letter to Huawei employees, that "despite the restrictions on my permitted range of motion, the color and reach of my heart have never been so rich and extensive."

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor's treatment was "in no way reciprocal," Houlden said. Human rights advocates describe the methods used by Chinese authorities in residential surveillance as a form of torture. The detention of the two Canadian men was widely regarded as retaliation for Ms. Meng's arrest.

"It would be a wonderful and very appreciated gesture if the Chinese decided to improve their conditions," said Houlden.

Chinese law allows detainees to have access to lawyers, although suspects who have been arrested can be held without charge for months, while prosecutors decide whether to prosecute them.

The formal arrest of a suspect in China marks "the official decision by the judicial body to approve the arrest", said Margaret Lewis, a law scholar in China at the School of Law of the Seton Hall University.

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"At the very least it shows the progression of the case," he said, although deadlines can be malleable. "There are always exceptions here. So I wouldn't put much into play at any formal time, especially given the extraordinary nature" of the lawsuits against the two Canadian men, he said.

Even the formal arrest of the two Canadians creates new complications for Ottawa's efforts to press for their release. "It will be more complicated to obtain them while the Chinese will say that they cannot interfere in the legal process," said Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China.

And any improvement in the conditions resulting from their formal arrest is probably modest at best. Kevin Garratt, a Canadian who went through a similar trial in China, described the transition from residential surveillance to detention as initially frightening.

"It was very formal and the recruitment procedures were unreal. Simple medical supervision I took my shoes. I was able to carry my Bible and a change of clothes only," said Garratt, who was arrested, arrested, convicted to prison and then deported during a dispute between Ottawa and Beijing for the arrest of another Chinese citizen in Vancouver. The business man Su Bin was accused of stealing US defense secrets. US authorities requested his extradition, as they did with Ms. Meng, who was accused of fraud related to violations of the sanctions against Iran.

One of the most significant changes for Mr. Garratt when he moved into detention was the ability to be with other people.

"Entering the cell with 13 other inmates was very intimidating – not knowing what crime they had committed," said Garratt. But as he began to converse with other inmates, he said, he was better able to relax and see them as companions "victims of a system he saw as all guilty before the trial". Medical care in prison was scarce and his health suffered.

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He didn't see a lawyer until almost a year after being detained. And the Chinese law prevents access to the family until a verdict has been rendered.

However, detention was an improvement over residential surveillance, said Garratt, although "it took some time to get used to it".

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