BEIJING (NYTIMES, REUTERS) – China’s diplomatic clash with Canada escalated sharply on Monday (Jan 14), when a Canadian man was sentenced to death for drug smuggling after a Chinese court overrode his plea of innocence at a retrial that had been swiftly called after tensions erupted between the two countries.
The court in northeastern China announced the death penalty against the Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, after a retrial that lasted one day, and gave no indication that his sentence might be reduced to a prison sentence.
Schellenberg’s fate is likely to become a volatile factor in diplomacy between Beijing and Ottawa after Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese tech executive last month.
A terse official statement from the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court said that it had “convicted Schellenberg of smuggling drugs and sentenced him to death.”
Last month, a court ordered Schellenberg to be retried after he appealed a 15-year prison sentence 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 condemned the decision. “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 in Ottawa.
“The worst-case scenario is what happened, our worst fears were realised,” Schellenberg’s aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, who has acted as a spokeswoman for his family, said by telephone from Maryland.
She said she was trying to contact his immediate family to find out if they knew about the court judgment. “I didn’t think we’d get a verdict this fast regardless of the outcome,” Ms Nelson-Jones said. “It’s shocking, especially from a North American view of how things go.”
Prosecutors and Schellenberg on Monday offered starkly different accounts of his role in the smuggling operation.
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 an online 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 Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer.
Before the retrial, Schellenberg’s family had voiced fears that he would become a bargaining chip for Beijing to seek Ms 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 and that is incredibly worrisome.”
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, 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, however, 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 Ms Meng and return her to China, rather than sending her to the United States.