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Political pawn or guilty as charged? Extradition trial of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou gets underway in Vancouver

Political pawn or guilty as charged? Extradition trial of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou gets underway in Vancouver
A Canadian court is set to hear a much-anticipated case at the centre of the tech and trade war between the US and China, as Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou will fight a US extradition request based on charges her team say have no merit.

Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport in December 2018 at the bidding of the United States, just as tensions were mounting between Washington and Beijing over trade tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. US authorities accused her of defrauding financial institutions and lying in an attempt to circumvent US sanctions impeding other countries’ abilities to do business with Iran.

The Huawei executive — who was forced to surrender her passports, abide by a curfew and wear a GPS tracker — has been living under house arrest in Vancouver since she was released on a $10-million bail. Formal hearings begin on Monday and are expected to continue until Thursday, though this is only phase one in what is expected to be a long and drawn out extradition trial. With so many moving parts to the case and potential for multiple appeals, it could still take months or even years for it to really come to an end.

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Decisions this week will hang on the Canadian law principle, necessary for extradition, of ‘double criminality’. That essentially means the crime the person is accused of by the country requesting extradition must also be a crime in Canada. 

Meng's team has argued that, since the sanctions she is accused of violating are not Canadian sanctions, the 'double criminality' standard does not apply. The prosecution insists, however, that the case is primarily about the alleged fraud, not sanctions. Meng has accused US and Canadian authorities of unlawful detainment, searches and interrogations. If her attorneys can convince the court that the standard for 'double criminality' is not met, she could be released from house arrest.

Critics of Canada’s handling of the case — including the father of jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — have framed it as just another example of the US abusing the legal systems of foreign countries to target their geopolitical enemies. 

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Indeed, Meng’s case would seem to fit that profile. While US authorities have framed her arrest and charges as being simply about Iran sanctions and fraud, to consider this case as purely about business with Tehran would be to ignore the US government’s massive pressure campaign against Huawei itself, which has been playing out in tandem to the wider US-China tariff and trade war. Washington has urged the rest of the world to shun Huawei and its 5G technology, which it claims is a threat to national security and will be used for spying — accusations China has denied.

Meng’s case also places Canada in a tricky position. While it will not want to irk its powerful next-door neighbor, Ottawa will also be concerned for Canadian citizens who were arrested in China on spy charges — seen by many as a tit-for-tat retaliation by Beijing following Meng's detainment.

Canada is now faced with two unappealing options: anger China by caving to Washington’s demands and extradite Meng over charges which look suspiciously political; or anger the US by keeping her in Canada and trying to work out an exchange deal with Beijing that would see its own citizens brought home.

Multiple former Canadian government officials have come out in support of the prisoner swap option in recent weeks. In an article for the Globe and Mail, Eddie Goldenberg — a chief of staff to former PM Jean Chrétien — accused the US of painting Canada into a corner. He argued that Trudeau's government must understand that China regards Meng as "a hostage that Canada is holding" for Donald Trump, and that Beijing will never release the Canadian prisoners unless Meng is returned. Former deputy PM John Manley has also advocated a prisoner exchange.

Adding weight to the argument that Meng is being used as a political pawn is the fact that Donald Trump himself publicly suggested he would intervene in the case if it helped him secure a good trade deal with China.

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