VANCOUVER—The lawsuit brought by embattled Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou against the Canadian government and law enforcement may be part of a larger legal strategy to affect extradition proceedings and a possible future criminal case stateside, say legal experts.
Meng filed a notice of civil claim on Friday alleging her rights were violated by authorities during her arrest on Dec. 1 at the Vancouver International Airport.
While the lawsuit itself is on solid footing and refers to established Supreme Court precedent, awards in civil claims like the one brought by Meng are generally only in the thousands of dollars, said Kyla Lee, a Vancouver-based criminal lawyer with Acumen Law Corporation.
Meng’s extraordinary wealth suggests the likely motivation for the lawsuit is its use as a tool in her longer-term bid to avoid extradition to the United States to face criminal charges, she said.
“On its face, this appears to be part of an overall legal strategy, because there is no financial incentive for her to bring this lawsuit, and what she’s claiming is financial damages,” Lee told the Star Vancouver in an interview.
A spokesperson for Gudmundseth Mickelson LLP, Meng’s law firm in the case, declined to comment.
The U.S. is seeking Meng’s extradition for allegedly violating trade sanctions against Iran.
A judgment in her favour on the question of whether her rights were violated during the course of her arrest could have a “significant impact” on how those extradition proceedings play out in Canada, Lee said. It could also potentially affect whether the extradition request is ultimately granted by Canada’s justice minister.
Even if Meng is ultimately sent to the U.S. to face charges in the Eastern District of New York, a ruling that her rights were breached in Canada could play well for her in an American court, Lee said.
“Their cases proceed by jury trial … so American lawyers can argue all sorts of things you wouldn’t really get away with in front of a judge (in Canada),” she said of the range of evidence permitted in such cases in the U.S.
American citizens are also accustomed to seeing much larger financial awards for damages in civil cases, Lee added. So should Meng receive only a few thousand dollars — as previous judgments suggest would likely be the case — the award itself would fit neatly into a narrative of Meng’s mistreatment at the hands of Canadian authorities.
This narrative, Lee said, is in line with ongoing depictions — advanced aggressively by both Huawei and the Chinese Communist Party — of Meng as a victim.
Charles Burton, associate professor of political science at Brock University and a China expert, agreed that the case furthers a “propaganda” narrative for the Chinese government.
China has maintained Canada is playing a role in the “political persecution” of Huawei under direction from the U.S., Burton said, by suggesting the Canada Border Services Agency takes direction from Washington.
“That does seem to build that narrative in terms of the propaganda aspect, and this has nothing to do with Canadian law and is simply due to pressure the United States has exerted on Canada to deliver Ms. Meng to the United States,” he said. “Our suggestion has been Ms. Meng has been arrested in accordance with our extradition treaty with the United States.”
Burton stressed that with Meng in the formal extradition process, Beijing must realize she cannot simply be released, and continuing to hold Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig or following through with a death sentence for Robert Lloyd Schellenberg will only worsen relations with Canada.
Schellenberg’s 15-year prison sentence in China for drug smuggling was changed to a death sentence after a one-day retrial, while both Kovrig and Spavor have been detained by Chinese officials since December, when the saga began.
Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, meanwhile, said he believes the purpose of Meng’s lawsuit is to look for a “silver bullet” capable of ensuring extradition attempts fail.
“There is a lethal charter dart that can terminate extradition, that’s what they want,” Kurland said. “If they can establish charter violations that bring the administration of justice into disrepute, the entire extradition case is closed.”
He said the civil case enables Meng’s lawyers to search for such information because it offers a wider range of legal tools, such as the ability to subpoena the arresting officers and their files. Kurland said “loose, hanging threads” could be found and used by Meng in her attempt to quash extradition.
Lee said Meng has little to lose if her suit is unsuccessful. The steepest penalty she could face would likely set her back no more than roughly $20,000, and would only result from a finding that “there was absolutely no basis and that the claim was clearly frivolous and vexatious,” Lee said.
A central theme at Meng’s bail hearing, Lee pointed out, was the question of whether Meng’s extraordinary financial means made her an increased flight risk.
Meng is currently on the hook for thousands of dollars in daily security costs to maintain in-person and electronic monitoring services to ensure she doesn’t break her bail conditions, Lee said, suggesting she has little need for any award that might be forthcoming from her suit.
Meng’s wealth, Lee added, is also arguably the only reason her civil suit was even possible in the first place.
“She doesn’t have to make the decisions that other people facing extradition have to make insofar as, ‘Can I afford to make these strategic decisions?’” she said.
A person as rich as Meng has the power to hire the best lawyers, bring every possible legal argument to bear in service of her cause and “maximize every angle of our justice system, and then — potentially, if she’s extradited — every angle of the U.S. justice system to her advantage.”
Meng is scheduled to appear in court in relation to her extradition case on Wednesday.
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer
Jeremy Nuttall is the lead investigative reporter for Star Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports