By Paula Newton, CNN
Updated: Sat, 25 Sep 2021 07:27:25 GMT
Two Canadians detained by China for nearly three years have been released, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday night.
Trudeau said Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor boarded a plane headed for Canada at about 7:30 p.m. ET Friday night and would land in Canada sometime Saturday.
"These two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal for the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance and grace and we are all inspired by that," said Trudeau at a late evening news conference in Ottawa.
Trudeau would not discuss details about how their release came about but he thanked Canadian allies for their support.
Former diplomat Kovrig and businessman Spavor had been held in China since late 2018. They were arrested on espionage charges in China shortly after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US warrant related to the company's business dealings in Iran. However, China has consistently denied that the cases were in any way connected.
Earlier Friday, the United States Department of Justice and Meng reached an agreement to defer prosecution of US charges against her until late 2022, after which point the charges could be dropped.
Meng left Canada Friday on a flight for China chartered by the Chinese government, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
In a lengthy post on her WeChat account Saturday, Meng described tearing up as her flight from Vancouver to Shenzhen crossed the North Pole and praised China's ruling Communist Party. A CNN source has seen the post which is not open to be publicly viewed.
"As we get closer to home, I feel increasingly emotional, with tears welling up in my eyes. Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, our motherland is moving toward prosperity. Without this strong motherland, I wouldn't have my freedom today," she wrote. "I thank my beloved motherland, and I thank the Party and the government ... for shining a light during my darkest hours and guiding me in my long journey home."
The US case centered on whether Meng, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, misled HSBC bank about the company's relationship with an Iranian subsidiary, Skycom, which the US alleges would have violated US sanctions against Iran. Meng is also the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei.
Meng appeared virtually in a court in Brooklyn, New York, and pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and wire fraud.
However, as part of the deal, Meng confirmed the statement of facts in the deferred prosecution agreement are true. Those facts include that she misrepresented Huawei's relationship with Skycom to HSBC, according to court documents. If she says or implies otherwise, it could violate the terms of the deal and result in her prosecution.
Three-year legal saga
Meng was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver in December 2018. Nine days later, Spavor and Kovrig were detained in China -- a move widely interpreted as political retaliation for her arrest.
Beijing has denied holding the two Canadians as political hostages, but their legal proceedings took place at critical times. Their hearings -- held separately behind closed doors in March -- were announced the day before the first high-level meeting between US and Chinese officials since Joe Biden came to office. Spavor's sentencing in August, when he was given 11 years in prison for spying and illegally providing state secrets overseas, came as Meng's hearings entered their final stages in Vancouver.
Huawei and Meng's team previously denied the US allegations, saying that HSBC executives knew of Huawei's relationships with Skycom. They also claimed the US case -- which was filed amid former President Donald Trump's trade war with China -- was politically motivated.
After Trudeau's announcement Friday, Kovrig's employer, think tank International Crisis Group, welcomed the news.
"The day we have been waiting for 1,020 days has finally arrived. Michael Kovrig is free," interim vice president Comfort Ero said. "To Beijing: We welcome this most just decision. To Ottawa: Thank you for your steadfast support for our colleague. To the United States: Thank you for your willingness to support an ally and our colleague. To the inimitable, indefatigable, and inspiring Michael Kovrig, welcome home!"