BEIJING • China's diplomatic clash with Canada escalated yesterday, when a Canadian man was sentenced to death for drug smuggling after a court overrode his plea of innocence at a retrial.
The court in north-eastern China announced the death penalty for Robert Lloyd Schellenberg after a retrial that lasted one day, and gave no indication that his sentence might be reduced to a prison term.
Schellenberg's fate is likely to become a volatile factor in diplomacy between Beijing and Ottawa after the Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese tech executive last month.
A terse official statement from the Dalian Intermediate People's Court said it had "convicted Schellenberg of smuggling drugs and sentenced him to death".
Last month, a court ordered Schellenberg to be retried after he appealed against a 15-year term for smuggling methamphetamines.
But against a backdrop of sharply increased tensions between China and Canada, the court sided with prosecutors who called for a stiffer sentence at a new trial.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday accused China of arbitrarily using the death penalty in this case. "It is of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies, that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply (the) death penalty... as in this case," he told reporters.
Schellenberg's aunt Lauri Nelson-Jones said via telephone in Maryland: "The worst-case scenario is what happened, our worst fears were realised." She said she was trying to contact his immediate family to find out if they knew about the court judgment.
Prosecutors and Schellenberg yesterday offered starkly different accounts of his role in the smuggling operation.
The prosecutors told the court that they "now have evidence that highly suggests Schellenberg was involved in organised international drug crime", China's central television broadcaster said in a report. "Schellenberg argued that he was a tourist visiting China and framed by criminals."
Schellenberg's unusually swift appeal hearing and retrial came after the Chinese government was incensed by the December arrest in Vancouver, British Columbia, of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei.
Before the retrial, Schellenberg's family had voiced fears that he would become a bargaining chip for Beijing to seek Meng's release, Ms Nelson-Jones said.
"He's become a pawn," she said. "We can only guess, but that is definitely what it looks like."
Schellenberg appears to be the first North American sentenced to death in China in recent times.
The sentence must still be examined and ratified by China's highest court, the Supreme People's Court.
As well imposing the death sentence on Schellenberg, the Chinese authorities arrested two Canadians last month: Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat; and Michael Spavor, a businessman.
Those men have been accused of "endangering national security", a sweeping charge that can include espionage. The police have not announced any specific allegations against them while they remain in secret detention, denied visits from lawyers and family members.
The International Crisis Group, which gives advice on solving conflicts, has adamantly denied that Kovrig did anything to harm China.
Some foreign experts have said China's swift action in all three cases appeared intended to pressure Canada to free Meng and return her to China.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS