China has formally indicted two Canadian nationals on espionage charges, media reports said on Friday.

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been detained in China since their arrest in December 2018.

The charges signal the start of judicial proceedings against the duo, and are likely to further strain ties between Beijing and Ottawa.

According to daily South China Morning Post, a public prosecution for allegedly “gathering state secrets and intelligence” has been initiated against Kovrig in the Second Branch Court of the People’s Procuratorate of Beijing.

Spavor is accused of “stealing and providing state secrets to foreign countries” and his case is being heard in the Dandong Procuratorate in Liaoning province.

They are being held in facilities where the lights are kept on day and night, the report said.

Conviction rate in such cases remains very high in China, and the two may be handed life sentences.

Their arrests were widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s detention of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 at the request of the US, who accused her of violating sanctions on Iran.

Meng, who remains under house arrest in Vancouver, is expected to face an extradition hearing in January.

However, new documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have revealed that Meng is a “victim of an abuse of process,” her lawyers have said.

Meng has rejected the allegations by the US and Canada and has demanded the withdrawal of Washington’s extradition request.

The heavily redacted CSIS report, part of newly released federal court documents, had predicted her detention in December 2018 would “send shockwaves around the world” and provides evidence of “coordinated state misconduct” between the US and Canada against Meng, her lawyers have said.

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