China acting ‘arbitrarily’ in imposing drug case death sentence: Trudeau
There are concerns the decision is politically motivated.
OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s very concerned to see China “acting arbitrarily” by applying the death penalty to a Canadian convicted of drug trafficking.
Canada will do all it can to intervene on Robert Lloyd Schellenberg’s behalf and Beijing’s actions should be worrisome for “all our international friends and allies,” Trudeau said Monday.
The development further strained already tense relations between Canada and China over the treatment of each other’s citizens by their respective justice systems. And rights organizations said it raises serious questions about possible political interference in China.
A court in Dalian in northeastern Liaoning province announced Monday evening that it had given Schellenberg the death penalty after reconsidering his case.
Schellenberg was detained in 2014 and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016 on charges of being an accessory to drug smuggling.
His new sentence comes after China detained two Canadians on national security grounds in December in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Chinese technology executive.
Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States, angering Beijing.
The Chinese media began publicizing Schellenberg’s case after Canada detained Meng, who faces extradition to the U.S. on fraud charges.
Fifty people, including Canadian diplomats and foreign and domestic media, attended Monday’s trial, the court said in an online statement.
Canada’s federal government intercedes on behalf of any Canadian facing execution abroad, Trudeau said in Ottawa.
“This is very much a concern to see that China is acting arbitrarily and applying the death penalty to a Canadian,” he said, adding the government “will continue to talk to our allies and to China about this.”
Schellenberg’s aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, said the family is awaiting any news regarding an appeal.
“All I can really say at this moment is, it is our worst case fear confirmed. Our thoughts are with Robert at this time,” she said in an email to The Canadian Press. “It is rather unimaginable what he must be feeling and thinking. It is a horrific, unfortunate, heartbreaking situation.”
The family also issued a short statement late Monday which said they are working with their MP, Ed Fast, who they said is “working hard on our behalf to ensure that the Trudeau government makes every effort to secure fair treatment for Robert.”
“The Schellenberg family requests that all Canadians stand with us and pray for the safe return of our loved one,” the statement said.
Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said his client has 10 days to contest the latest sentence.
Zhang said he argued in the one-day trial Monday that there was insufficient evidence to prove Schellenberg’s involvement in the drug-smuggling operation, nor had prosecutors introduced new evidence to justify a heavier sentence.
“This is a very unique case,” Zhang told The Associated Press. He added the swiftness of the proceedings—with a retrial held so soon after it was ordered—was unusual, but he declined to comment on whether it was related to Meng’s arrest
Schellenberg had been prepared for a more severe punishment so he maintained a calm demeanour in court, Zhang said.
The court said it found that Schellenberg was involved in an international drug-smuggling operation and was recruited to help smuggle more than 222 kilograms of methamphetamine from a warehouse in Dalian city to Australia.
A Chinese person convicted of involvement in the same operation received a suspended death sentence earlier.
A death sentence anywhere in the world is a travesty but it is more so in places like China, where fair-trial rights remain at best elusive, said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch. “Beijing will have to answer to the world why this particular case against a citizen of this particular country had to be retried at this particular moment.”
China’s abrupt retrial of Schellenberg “is suspicious, to say the least,” tweeted Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor of international affairs and a former adviser to the Trudeau government.
John Kamm, head of a U.S.-based organization that promotes clemency for at-risk prisoners in China, said the rapidity of the most recent court process raises questions about political interference.
“There are a number of very disturbing aspects to this whole case,” said Kamm, executive director of the non-profit Dui Hua Foundation.
He said his organization is advising Schellenberg’s family to seek an appeal, though the likelihood of winning such a case is slim.
“They are in shock and disbelief that this has happened so quickly,” Kamm said in an interview from his office in San Francisco.
If Schellenberg loses on appeal, the death sentence will be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court, which overturns sentences only about 10 per cent of the time, he said.
“I am looking forward to hearing the Canadian government’s response,” Kamm said. “It must protest in very strong terms and make clear to the Chinese government that there will be consequences for this.”
The friction between Canada and China has been steadily increasing since Canadian authorities took Meng into custody in Vancouver and Chinese officials subsequently arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur, for allegedly endangering national security.
The Opposition Conservatives have been calling on Trudeau to address the controversy by telephoning Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Direct engagement by the prime minister with the Chinese leader would highlight the seriousness of the issue, said Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who just wrapped up a visit to China as part of a parliamentary delegation. “It needs to be dealt with by officials in the Canadian government at the highest level, and that is the prime minister.”
In 2009, China executed a Briton, Akmal Shaikh, on charges of smuggling heroin despite his supporters’ protest that he was mentally ill.
The episode was terribly damaging to relations between the United Kingdom and China, said Ben Rowswell, a former diplomat and current president of the Canadian International Council, a non-partisan think-tank.
He said Canadians are divided as to whether China should be seen primarily as a partner or as a threat. “My concern is that if a Canadian is executed in China, it will tip the balance in favour of the latter, and it will take years and years for the Canada-China relationship to recover.”
The collective power of like-minded liberal democracies could help Canada assert its position in an increasingly splintered world, Rowswell added.
“On that, I think Canada’s in relatively good position because we traditionally have been excellent at banding together and creating meaningful alliances and institutions with a large number of very powerful countries.”
Amnesty International noted in a statement that China executes more people every year than all other countries around the world combined. The organization called on Trudeau to press the Chinese government abandon any plans to carry out Schellenberg’s death sentence.
—With files from Alison Auld, Michael MacDonald and The Associated Press