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‘Free Michael Kovrig’: Hungarian Music Group Wants Former Bandmate Back Home in Toronto

Brittany Jordan

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Budapest-based band launches campaign to have Michael Kovrig released from jail in China

With the 1,000th day of the Chinese regime’s imprisonment of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig coming up on Sept. 4, a Hungarian band with which Kovrig was lead singer is pushing for his return and assuring him that “we’re gonna get you home.”

Known as Bankrupt, the Budapest-based band recently wrote a song to raise awareness of Kovrig’s plight called “The Plane to Toronto,” referring to the city where Kovrig had his childhood home. The band members are now calling on people to join them in creating a crowdsourced collaboration video to advance the “Free Michael Kovrig” campaign a step further.

“We believe that the more people stand up for him, the bigger pressure will be on politicians to get him out,” the band says on its website. “Eventually, it all adds up. We can make a difference.”

Kovrig met Balazs Sarkadi, the band’s bassist and lead vocalist, in 1996. At the time, Sarkadi and some friends had decided to start a band but wanted an English native speaker to join them as lead singer. They started advertising in local papers and holding auditions. Kovrig responded to their ads and would go on to perform with the band from 1996 to 1999.

Kovrig began his visits to Hungary in the ’90s, after the communist reign in the country ended in 1989. Being of Hungarian origin and knowing his father had fled the country in the 1950s due to the failed anti-Soviet revolution, Kovrig was always interested in discovering his family’s roots. According to his LinkedIn profile, he also started working as a journalist in August 1997 at Budapest Week, the city’s first independent English weekly newspaper, founded in March 1991.

After his departure from the band, Kovrig would eventually head to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University, which set the path for his later career at Global Affairs Canada. In September 2014, he was appointed as First Secretary and Vice-Consul at the Embassy of Canada in China. In the next two years, Kovrig travelled between China and Hong Kong serving as a diplomat before leaving to join the International Crisis Group as a senior adviser for North East Asia in February 2017.

Kovrig’s friendship with Bankrupt continued, and he travelled to Budapest every year to visit them. When he was there in April 2017 and attended a show by the band, his former bandmates invited him onstage to perform with them. That was the last time they saw him.

Campaign poster calling for the release of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig from arbitrary detention in China. (Handout via Bankrupt/Richárd Vass)

Music ‘Keeps Him Going’

Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arbitrarily detained in China on Dec. 10, 2018—a move that is widely considered a hostile retaliation by Beijing in response to Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou nine days earlier at the request of the United States.

Meng is under house arrest in Vancouver as her extradition case makes its way through court. She is accused of bank fraud for allegedly misleading HSBC in an attempt to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Spavor was put on trial on March 19 for “spying and illegally sending state secrets abroad,” while Kovrig was tried a few days later on charges of “spying into state secrets and intelligence” for foreign entities. Consular access to both court hearings was denied.

In an interview on Global News program ON Point with Alex Pierson on Aug. 4, Sarkadi said Kovrig had a big influence on him in his music career and that singing continues to be something that sustains Kovrig.

“From what I heard from his sister, Ariana, and his wife, Vina, Michael is singing in a cell, so that is one of the things that keeps him going,” Sarkadi told ON Point, adding that Kovrig’s letters to family and friends show the kind of person he is.

“They are really moving—the words and sentences that he put together. For his wife, for example, it’s really like poetry,” said Sarkadi. “It really shows that Michael is a really sensitive and good-hearted person.”

The idea of the crowdsourced collaboration video, the band says on their website, is to have people around the world record themselves holding a “Free Michael” sign, film it for 10–15 seconds, and then pass it over to the left so that the next person can pick up and continue the video from there.

The instructions for recording and submitting the video can be found on their website, as well as artwork that participants can print out and hold as a sign. Or they can also make their own design.

“As soon as we have the material, we will put together the music video. And we want to release it as soon as possible because we really feel that time is running out now that [Meng’s] extradition hearings are in the final stage,” Sarkadi said.

“Inside is hell, outside is heaven, and the lights are on 24/7,” Sarkadi sings in the song. “Hold on please, we’re gonna get you home. It’s been a long time, but you’ve never been alone. You’ve gotta know bad times won’t last forever. In no time, I know, you’ll be on the plane to Toronto.”

Isaac Teo

Brittany Jordan is an award-winning journalist who reports on breaking news in the U.S. and globally for the Federal Inquirer. Prior to her position at the Federal Inquirer, she was a general assignment features reporter for Newsweek, where she wrote about technology, politics, government news and important global events around the world. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Toronto Star, Frederick News-Post, West Hawaii Today, the Miami Herald, and more. Brittany enjoys food, travel, photography, and hoarding notebooks and journals. Her goal is to do more longform features journalism, narrative writing and documentary work, and to one day write a successful novel and screenplay.

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