Australian man could face death penalty in China drug trial

Police escort Australian Peter Gardner as he enters court in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China on May 7, 2015. He faces a possible death sentence on Thursday on charges of attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of drugs out of China. -- P
Police escort Australian Peter Gardner as he enters court in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China on May 7, 2015. He faces a possible death sentence on Thursday on charges of attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of drugs out of China. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

GUANGZHOU (Reuters) - An Australian man faced a possible death sentence on Thursday on charges of attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of drugs out of China.

The trial follows Indonesia's high-profile executions last week of two convicted Australian drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, alongside six others from several countries, despite international criticism of its use of the death penalty.

Chinese authorities arrested New Zealand-born Peter Gardner, 26, at the international airport in the southern city of Guangzhou last November, carrying bags of nearly 30 kg of methamphetamine, known as "ice".

Customs officials put the market value of the drugs at several million dollars.

As his parents and New Zealand officials watched, Gardner, seated in handcuffs before three judges in the Guangzhou Intermediate Court, pleaded his innocence.

"Without a doubt this is the biggest mistake of my life," Gardner told the judges. When he saw the ice being ripped from the bags, he added, "My heart dropped."

Gardner holds dual Australian and New Zealand nationality but entered China on his New Zealand passport. He said he had travelled there to pick up a quantity of athletic performance enhancing drugs, arranged through an intermediary in Sydney.

He was given two sealed black carrier bags by two Chinese men during his stay at the Hilton Hotel, he told the court. Airport customs officials later discovered the bags contained ice.

The Sydney intermediary was a trusted friend, Gardner told the court, and he was just "following instructions" in taking the bags.

A verdict and sentencing were expected later on Thursday.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully's office said he stated his country's opposition to the death penalty when he visited China last week, but that New Zealand would neither comment nor intervene further given it is a judicial matter in another country.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not know the details of the case. "But as we've said previously the trafficking of drugs is a very serious crime that is terribly harmful to society and we resolutely oppose it and deal with it in accordance with the law. As for the death penalty, it is used very cautiously in China," she told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

Chinese authorities blamed a rise in violent crime last year on a surge in drug smuggling from Southeast Asia. Drug use in China has grown along with the rise of a new urban class with more disposable income.