US efforts to extradite a Chinese telecoms executive from Canada may have been stymied by remarks on the case made by Donald trump, according to Canada’s top diplomat in Beijing.
Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was detained at the request of the US on 1 December in Vancouver, over alleged violations of US sanctions on Iran. She is currently under house arrest and the US justice department has until 30 January to file a formal extradition request.
The incident has inadvertently placed Canada in direct conflict with China, but Justin Trudeau’s government now appears to be adopting a new strategy to ease tension between the two countries.
In statements made to Chinese-language media in Canada, ambassador John McCallum said Meng “has some strong arguments that she can make before a judge”, and outlined arguments that could weaken US attempts to extradite her.
For more than a month, Canada has faced reprisals from China, including the detention and alleged abuse of two Canadian citizens and a deep-freeze in relations between the two countries.
Canadian officials have repeatedly stressed that the case Meng, who is under house arrest in Vancouver, must be immune to political interference.
But McCallum’s comments seemed to indicate a new strategy. On Wednesday, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said Canada was “committed to the rule of law” and declined to comment on McCallum’s remarks.
“It is extraordinary to have McCallum say those things,” said Gordon Houlden, head of the University of Alberta’s China Institute. “We know that he’s met with the cabinet, the prime minister and caucus. He’s up to speed on the thinking and this is a man of sufficient experience … This is not chance. He’s putting out a message there.”
In his remarks, McCallum pointed to previous comments from Trump as potential evidence of political interference. In December, Trump suggested he would be open to using Meng’s pending case as a negotiating tactic in trade talks with China, saying he would “intervene if I thought it was necessary”.
Trump’s statements, which left Canada scrambling to defend the integrity of its judicial system, were not the first time the president’s off-the-cuff ideas have served as an obstacle to his administration’s policy proposals.
His previous remarks about the firing of former FBI director James Comey and Muslim immigrants have both created legal and political headaches.
Once the US justice department files a formal extradition request for Meng, her case will be heard by a judge in British Columbia. The extradition request must then be approved by the country’s attorney general.
“It is unusual and inappropriate for a senior official – and in this case a former cabinet minister – to express a view in public as to the relative merits of the arguments in an extradition case,” Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the university of British Columbia told the the Guardian in an email. “The judge will read about these comments and have to work harder to stay objective, and that is unfair to both him and the accused.”
McCallum also made reference to the alleged breach of Iran sanctions in his public remarks: “Canada does not sign on to these Iran sanctions. So I think she has some strong arguments she can make before a judge.”
US prosecutors, however, have stressed it is not violation of the sanctions, but of suspicious fraud that prompted the extradition request.
McCallum’s remarks could represent a way of lessening tensions, said Houlden.
“I think there’s maybe a little bit of concern that perhaps in Canada, by Canadians, that the Americans are prepared to fight China to last Canadian,” he said, calling the statements by McCallum a “trial balloon”.
But the comments will also probably provide fodder for her legal team: “To be able to quote the ambassador to China, if I were her lawyer, I would certainly be adding a couple of talking points.”