Vancouver makes an unlikely front line in the battle between global superpowers.
But the Huawei executive whose arrest last year placed Canada in the middle of a conflict between China and the United States will again take centre stage in a B.C. courtroom this week.
Meng Wanzhou’s lawyers will begin eight days of hearings Monday, scheduled to argue for access to documents related to her initial detention and arrest at Vancouver’s airport last December on a warrant for extradition to the U.S.
In the time since the Huawei chief financial officer’s last in-person court appearance in May, tensions between Canada and China have only worsened.
The relationship between China and the United States has also further deteriorated — and as they make their case, Meng’s lawyers will argue that U.S. President Donald Trump is using their client as a bargaining chip in a trade war.
“The U.S. is attempting to use these extradition proceedings for economic and political gain,” Meng’s defence team said in a document filed with the court in advance of this week’s hearing.
Accused of violating U.S. sanctions
Meng — daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei — was arrested on Dec. 1, 2018, on a stopover from Hong Kong to Mexico City. Her ultimate destination was Buenos Aires.
Both Meng and Huawei as a company face 13 criminal counts of conspiracy, fraud and obstruction in the U.S.
The charges relate to an alleged scheme to circumvent sanctions against Iran through Skycom, a shadow company in Tehran that prosecutors claim was actually controlled by Huawei.
Meng is accused of lying about the relationship of the two companies to an HSBC executive during a meeting at a Hong Kong restaurant in 2013 — allegedly putting U.S. banks at risk of violating sanctions.
Both she and Huawei have denied all the allegations.
The 47-year-old has been living under a form of house arrest in one of her two multi-million-dollar Vancouver homes after being released on $10 million bail in the weeks following her initial detention.
‘Unlawfully detained, searched and interrogated’
Last December, President Donald Trump said he would be willing to intervene with the U.S. Justice Department in the case against Meng, if it would help secure a trade deal with Beijing.
In documents filed with the court in advance of this week’s proceedings, Meng’s lawyers claim Trump’s comments provide “important context to what occurred” in the days and hours leading up to her arrest.
They accuse American and Canadian authorities of using the CBSA’s extraordinary powers of detention to mount a “covert criminal investigation” against their client.
They claim RCMP originally planned to arrest Meng on the plane, but changed their minds for some unknown reason.
Notes included in a defence application for documents also show that a CBSA officer asked Meng about Huawei’s business in Iran as she watched him inspect her bags.
Meng’s lawyers ultimately plan to argue that all those factors contribute to abuses of process serious enough to have the case tossed.
But first they hope to convince B.C. Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes to order the disclosure of notes, emails, texts, reports and any other documents they believe will help them make their case.
“[Meng] submits that she was unlawfully detained, searched and interrogated at YVR under a ruse carried out by the CBSA, RCMP and American authorities, for the benefit of and likely at the direction of the FBI and other U.S. authorities,” the defence team claims.
“In these circumstances, one would reasonably expect that the FBI was in communication with the [Department of Justice], the RCMP and/or CBSA throughout these events … Yet none of this material has been disclosed.”
A legal tangle
Monday’s hearing will be the first time Meng has made a public appearance in months, guaranteeing a flock of media from around the world.
Her extradition hearing itself isn’t slated to begin until January 2020. A separate hearing is also slated for next year to deal with the abuse of process allegations.
But a variety of legal proceedings have to play out before any of that can happen.
Adding to the legal complications, Meng is suing both the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP for allegedly violating her Charter rights during her initial arrest and detention.
The civil suit is a separate process to the extradition proceedings, but both will focus intense scrutiny on the events leading up to and including Meng’s arrest — including the reason authorities allegedly made a last-minute decision to have CBSA officers detain Meng instead of arresting her either on the plane or as she disembarked.
Hearings in both cases are scheduled for Monday morning.
A ‘ruse’ to get information?
Meng’s civil lawyers have interviewed Canadian officials at length as part of the discovery process and have told the court her extradition lawyers want to see those transcripts — which have not yet been entered into the record.
At a sparsely attended hearing a few weeks ago, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson expressed some doubts about the motivation for the civil case.
“I’m concerned that what’s going on in this civil lawsuit is just a ruse to get information for the extradition proceedings,” Hinkson told Meng’s civil lawyers.
But Meng’s civil lawyer, Howard Mickelson, claimed there was “meat on the bones” of the allegations that Meng’s rights had been violated and that her two separate legal teams were not working together.
It’s all likely to contribute to a day of unprecedented activity at the court.
‘People are puzzled’
Meanwhile, the ripples from Meng’s arrest continue to be felt in both Canada and China.
The Chinese government has blocked imports of canola seeds, pork and beef from Canada.
Two Canadians accused of drug trafficking in China have been sentenced to death.
And Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig remain in custody in China. The two men, who are accused of spying, were arrested within days of Meng’s detention in Vancouver.
China has denied that any of these actions were taken in direct retaliation, but Chinese officials have made no secret of their displeasure with Canada’s decision to assist the U.S. with Meng’s extradition.
Paul Evans, a University of B.C. professor who is director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research, says Meng’s situation has captured the world’s attention.
Evans says he’s spoken with people across the country about the case and the underlying issues. Feelings are mixed, he says, but even the most tangled of court appearances will have the ability to spark debate.
“People are puzzled about Meng, but they generally are divided on whether they’re sympathetic to her, whether they see her caught in a vice knot of her own making, whether this has been sprung on us by the Americans,” he says.
‘Something that frightens’
Evans says the longer the case drags on, the more concern for Kovrig and Spavor will eclipse Meng’s legal peril, especially considering the draconian conditions of their incarceration compared to Meng’s gold-plated house arrest.
He says the case raises questions about the possibility of extradition being used as a tool for the United States to pursue a vendetta — questions at the heart of this week’s proceedings.
Meng’s extradition lawyers have argued that for years, U.S. officials “have been stopping Huawei employees at U.S. ports of entry in order to gather evidence” as part of an “overall escalation in tactics” against Huawei.
“When we talk about who’s breaking the rule of law, who’s breaking international norms, this thing that the United States has done in going after Meng, is something that frightens the Chinese, it frightens people in Europe,” Evans says.
“If the United States is going to use extradition treaties to pull the chains on individuals who in this case are Chinese — is this something new?”