While seasoned jurists say the Canadian government has every legal right to intervene to free Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou from her extradition trial to the U.S., some experts warn such an action could have significant political ramifications.
“The question isn’t whether the [Canadian government] can, the question is whether they should,” said Toronto-based lawyer Brian Greenspan.
In 1999, the Extradition Act was amended to include a specific provision that provides the federal minister of justice the power to intervene in an extradition at any point during the judicial phase.
“The minister has the right to withdraw the authority to proceed and to end the extradition proceeding, and it’s totally at the discretion of the minister of justice,” Greenspan said.
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Extradition proceedings continue in the case against Meng, who was arrested in 2018 in Vancouver on behalf of American justice officials. The United States wants to prosecute Meng for fraud, alleging she lied to banks about her company’s connections with Iran, which could possibly violate U.S. sanctions.
The issue of the Canadian government intervening in the case of Meng, the daughter of the Chinese technology giant’s founder, was raised recently by the wife of Michael Kovrig, one of two Canadians being held in China on charges of spying.
The Trudeau government has accused China of detaining Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for the arrest of Meng. Some have suggested Canada could secure their freedom if it put an end to the extradition proceedings against Meng and allowed her to return to China.
Trudeau has said his government continues to work behind the scenes to secure the release of the two Canadians but has ruled out a prisoner exchange.
Still in custody
The Office of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, David Lametti, said in a statement Tuesday they are “well aware of the laws and processes governing” the extradition proceedings.
“As Ms. Meng’s case remains before the courts, and the Minister of Justice has a direct role in the extradition process, it would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter,” the statement said.
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Former Supreme Court of Canada justice John Major said while Lametti can intervene at any time in the extradition process, it would be unusual — especially if after a prolonged court hearing, it concluded in favour of extradition.
But Major noted there may be reasons to do it, especially as Kovrig and Spavor languish in Chinese detention.
“I would hope before the attorney general intervenes, [he] would have reasons that convince Canadians he should,” Major told CBC News.
“The attorney general has to be very cautious in overruling a trial judge who has conducted a full hearing … You just want [Lametti] to act judiciously, not politically.”
‘Be very cautious’
Major said Canada is stuck in a difficult position, because if the attorney general quashes the judge’s decision in Meng’s case, the U.S. could react. Likewise, if the judge approves extradition, China could retaliate.
“It’s a delicate situation where you have the U.S. at odds with China and Canada being caught in the middle,” Major said.
Donald Abelson, director of St. Francis Xavier University’s Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, said he believes it would be “a very dangerous game for Canada to play in terms of succumbing to pressure” to intervene politically in the case.
“I don’t think that’s a game that we want to play,” said Abelson, who was also a founding director of the Canada-U.S. Institute. “It puts us in a very, very precarious position because we don’t want to be seen by the Americans as succumbing to Chinese political pressure.”
Abelson said Canada would be “tempting fate” with the U.S, particularly in the current political climate, where the Chinese government has become the focus of Donald Trump’s ire in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and the countries’ trade war.
Abelson said Canada doesn’t want to become a “punching bag” for Washington.
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Diplomatic gloves come off
David Carment, a a professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said he believes Canada’s intervention would prompt the Trump administration to use it as a rallying cry to undermine Trudeau’s leadership and his pursuit for a majority government when he calls an election.
“I think all sort of diplomatic gloves would come off in this case. The United States would come out fighting and work to undermine this current government’s mandate,” he said.
Christopher Sands, director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said that the state department officials who brought the case forward against Meng would be unhappy with Canada’s decision to intervene.
Trump would likely be angry, send off a dismissive tweet or give Trudeau the cold shoulder at the next G7 meeting. But Sands doesn’t believe it would result in major policy ramifications against Canada.
“Would it be ‘Canadians are no longer allowed to cross the border?’ No. The relationship between us and Canada is too big and complex for that,” he said. “I can’t see any lasting damage.”