Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday he is "disappointed" that China has formally charged two Canadians with spying, more than 18 months after their arrest amid a row between Beijing and Ottawa.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were detained in December 2018, nine days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on a US warrant, in what was seen as tit-for-tat retaliation.
"We're of course disappointed with the decision taken by the Chinese in the case of the two Michaels," Trudeau said, renewing calls for their release.
His deputy, Chrystia Freeland, said she was "heartbroken and really angry" over the charges, adding that it was "essential" for China to restore consular access for the pair.
Canada's former ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, meanwhile, urged Ottawa to take a more aggressive stance with Beijing.
"We need a strong reaction from the federal government, not just soft diplomatic talk anymore," he told public broadcaster CBC.
The Supreme People's Procuratorate said earlier it has begun the prosecution of Kovrig and Spavor, suspected of "foreign espionage" and "providing state secrets."
The move follows a key ruling allowing Meng to be extradited to the US, which wants to try her on fraud charges related to the Chinese telecom equipment maker's alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran.
Relations between Canada and China have hit rock bottom over the arrests. Bejing has blocked billions of dollars' worth of Canadian agricultural exports.
China's embassy in Ottawa meanwhile accused Washington of trying "to bring down Huawei."
Trudeau said Chinese authorities have "directly linked" the case "to the judicial proceedings against Miss Meng."
He called this "extremely disappointing because, for us, there obviously are no links, except in politics."
He vowed with allies to pressure Beijing to "cease the arbitrary detention of these two Canadian citizens who are being held for no other reason than (that) the Chinese government is disappointed with the independent proceedings of the Canadian judiciary."
While Meng, the eldest daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, has been out on bail and living in a mansion in Vancouver, the two Canadians remain in China's opaque penal system.
Monthly consular visits for Kovrig and Spavor were suspended mid-January when the coronavirus outbreak started in China, amid concerns over their well-being.
Beijing confirmed Friday that they would not resume until the virus situation had improved.
China's foreign ministry has previously insisted the pair are in good health and that their detention facility is "in a region that is not particularly affected by COVID-19."
However, people familiar with the matter have told AFP the two have endured hours of interrogation and during the first six months of detention were forced to sleep with the lights on.
Chinese human rights lawyer Li Fangping told AFP the pair could expect their trials to be held in secret, with an official lawyer appointed.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that the circumstances surrounding the case were "particularly serious ... the facts of the crime are clear and the evidence sufficient."
Trudeau has insisted on leaving the courts to decide Meng's fate.
He lamented in May that China "doesn't seem to understand" an independent judiciary.
His foreign minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, said after the May ruling over Meng that Canada would "continue to pursue principled engagement with China to address our bilateral differences".
Champagne said Ottawa also would seek clemency for a third Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, who faces execution on drug charges.
Meng's defense will challenge the lawfulness of her arrest at an as yet unscheduled hearing. That will be followed by more hearings, likely in September.
Any appeals could drag the case out for years.
In contrast, Kovrig and Spavor's trial would likely happen fairly quickly, experts said.
Li said "under normal circumstances a verdict would take six months."
Ryan Mitchell, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the long period of detention was "probably intended to help coerce a 'voluntary' confession out of one or both of the two Canadians."
"These trials are thus likely to be quite rapidly dealt with, and the verdict and sentence already determined by the (Communist) Party officials," he said.