VANCOUVER/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, released on bail on Tuesday to await a ruling on U.S. extradition at one of her luxury Vancouver homes, may have received welcome ammunition in court from an unlikely source - President Donald Trump.
As the hearing was winding up in a Canadian court, Trump told Reuters he would intervene in the U.S. Justice Department’s case against Meng if it would serve national security interests or help close a trade deal with China.
Legal experts and Canadian officials said the comments could allow Meng’s lawyers to contend her prosecution is politically motivated, an argument that would resonate in Canada where judges are particularly wary of abuse of the court system.
“He has handed her lawyers an opportunity to argue that the prosecution has been politicized and the extradition proceedings should end,” said Robert Currie, a professor of international law at Dalhousie University in Halifax. A Canadian official agreed that the comments could be raised.
Currie also said, however: “It’s not a sure thing.”
U.S. prosecutors accuse Meng, the chief financial officer and daughter of the founder of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL], of misleading multinational banks about Iran-linked transactions, putting the banks at risk of violating U.S. sanctions. Meng says she is innocent.
If a Canadian judge rules the case is strong enough, Canada’s justice minister must next decide whether to extradite Meng to the United States. If so, Meng would face U.S. charges of conspiracy to defraud multiple financial institutions, with a maximum sentence of 30 years for each charge.
The Justice Department bristled at Trump’s remarks, which referred to current efforts by China and the United States to negotiate a deal to resolve their trade war.
Asked about the comments at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General John Demers said his department was not “a tool of trade.”
“What we do at the Justice Department is law enforcement. We don’t do trade,” said Demers, the department’s top national security official.
Meng’s lawyer was not reachable for comment on Wednesday. The White House did not reply immediately to a request for comment.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said the legal process should not be hijacked for political purposes and that Meng’s lawyers would have the option of raising Trump’s remarks if they decided to fight extradition.
“Our extradition partners should not seek to politicize the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice and following the rule of law,” she said.
Meng is one of her country’s most powerful businesswomen and her father, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei, is a former People’s Liberation Army engineer.
The company, which builds everything from networks to handsets, is China’s largest technology company by employees, with more than 180,000 staff and revenue of $93 billion in 2017.
Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School in New York, said it was hard to see how national security or foreign policy could justify a possible intervention by Trump in the Huawei case.
“It seems like Trump is using this case as a bargaining chip in our trade deals and for financial gains,” Gershman said.
There is precedent for White House involvement in criminal cases for foreign policy reasons. The Obama administration in 2016 dismissed charges against a man based on “significant foreign policy interests” related to Iran’s nuclear program and agreed on a prisoner swap with Iran.
Earlier this year, Trump revisited penalties against Chinese company ZTE Corp for violating trade sanctions with Iran, saying the telecom maker is a big buyer for U.S. suppliers.
The case against Meng stems from a 2013 Reuters report that Huawei had close ties to a Hong Kong-based firm that attempted to sell U.S. equipment to Iran despite U.S. and European Union bans.
ANKLE MONITOR, MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR HOMES
No matter what the politics, one thing seems clear - Meng will be staying in Vancouver for a long time. It can take up to 12 years to exhaust all legal avenues in the Canadian extradition process.
Meng appeared to be settling into one of the two multimillion-dollar properties she owns in the city, a likely relief after spending 10 days in a women’s prison that a former inmate described as spartan, with little privacy.
“I am in Vancouver, got back with my family,” Meng posted on her account on Chinese instant messaging platform WeChat after her release. “Thanks to everyone for your concern.”
Fitted with an ankle monitor and hampered by severe restrictions on her movements, the executive faces a dramatic comedown from the jet-set lifestyle described in court documents.
Meng’s seven passports issued by China and Hong Kong held stamps showing travels around the world including to the United States, Mauritius, South Africa, Madagascar, Ghana, Mali and Myanmar, court documents showed.
She became a Canadian permanent resident in 2001, but her status expired in 2009, according to the court hearing.
U.S. prosecutors believe she stopped traveling to the United States after Huawei learned of the criminal investigation being pursued by the Justice Department in April 2017.
Her lawyers told the court that she will spend Christmas with her husband, Liu Xiaozong, 43, her daughter and one of her sons. Liu identified himself in court documents as a venture capitalist and Meng’s lawyer said he previously worked for Huawei in Mexico.
The couple married in Hong Kong in 2007 and have the one daughter together, said Liu, in addition to Meng’s three sons from previous marriages, aged between 14 and 20. One is enrolled at Eaglebrook school in Massachusetts in the seventh grade, according to a Dec. 6 character reference from its headmaster.
“I have been working hard for 25 years and ... my only simple goal would be to be with my husband and daughter,” Meng’s lawyer quoted her as saying on Tuesday. “I haven’t read a novel in years.”
Additional reporting by Tina Bellon, Jan Wolfe and Anthony Lin in New York; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Denny Thomas; Editing by Alex Richardson and Sonya Hepinstall