TRENTON, Canada

Two Canadians were formally charged with spying Friday by the Chinese regime, a move of “great concern” to Canada, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

At a press conference Friday, Trudeau said his government is doing everything “behind the scenes” to free Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

“We will be engaging directly with the Chinese government (and) continue to advocate for their release,” he said, adding that he would enlist the aid of allies to pressure for their release.

The “two Michaels” as they are often referred to are widely seen to be pawns in a diplomatic row between the two countries that began with the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on Dec. 1, 2018.

Beijing was incensed over Meng’s arrest and demanded her immediate release, but Canada did not comply.

Ten days later, the two Michaels were arrested. The pair have languished in jail for 18 months without official charges but the actions Friday clear the way for a formal trial.

The Chinese detention of the Canadians was widely seen as retribution for the Meng arrest at the request of the United States.

Besides jailing the two Michaels, over the next 18 months the Chinese leveled a series of economic broadsides against Canada, including a ban on canola seed and soybeans and Canadian pork and beef. The measures hurt Canadian farmers.

“China’s ban on major Canadian agriproducts has opened a new chapter in its habitual deployment of economic coercion against countries whose lawful actions it finds offensive,” said Duanjie Chen, a fellow with the respected Ottawa think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said last fall.

Friday, Spavor was charged on suspicion of spying to obtain state secrets while, Kovrig was charged with spying on behalf of an unspecified foreign organization.

“The facts are clear and the evidence solid and sufficient,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing, Friday.

Meanwhile, the US wants Meng extradited to face trial for fraud concerning contravention of American sanctions against Iran. Officials asked Canada to arrest her under an extradition treaty between the two countries.

At a subsequent extradition hearing, a Canadian judge released Meng on CAN$10 million bail and placed her under house arrest at her multi-million-dollar mansion in Vancouver. That is in stark contrast to the two Michaels who are in solitary confinement and Canadian consulate officials have not been allowed to see them since January.

Again, Beijing warned Canada to let Meng go. Canada responded by saying it is a country governed by the rule of law and courts are independent of the government.

Meng was back in court last month, where a judge ruled that the extradition proceedings could continue.

On top of all the furor surrounding Meng, two Canadian giant telecom companies recently announced they were buying their 5G equipment from a Swedish company, not Huawei.

Korving is a former Canadian diplomat who until his arrest was an advisor for an NGO organization. Spavor helped arrange travel into North Korea.

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