A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a Canadian man to death for drug smuggling, a ruling sure to aggravate already sour relations between Beijing and Ottawa following the arrest of a senior Chinese executive in Canada.
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 facing a Canadian,” he told reporters Monday morning.
The Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in China’s northeast province of Liaoning re-tried Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, who had appealed against his original 15-year sentence, and decided on execution, the court said in a statement on its website.
The ruling will further strain an already tense relationship with Canada in the wake of the Dec. 1 arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, at the request of the United States.
China denounced her arrest, warning of unspecified consequences unless she was released, and has since detained two Canadians on suspicion of endangering state security.
The death sentence was quickly condemned by rights groups.
William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher with Amnesty International, said it was horrified that Schellenberg had been sentenced to death, particularly as drug-related offenses did not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes” to which the death penalty must be restricted under international law.
“This is all the more shocking given the rushed nature of the retrial, and the deliberate way in which the Chinese authorities drew attention to this case,” Nee told Reuters.
Drug smuggling is routinely punished severely in China. Beijing has previously executed foreign nationals convicted of drug-related crimes – a Briton caught smuggling heroin was executed in 2009, prompting a British outcry over what it said was the lack of any mental health assessment.
Schellenberg likely to appeal
Schellenberg was told in court he had the right to appeal to Liaoning High Court within 10 days upon receiving the ruling, the intermediate court said in a second statement.
The court said Schellenberg had conspired with others in an attempt to smuggle 222 kg (489.43 lb) of methamphetamine from China to Australia in late 2014.
The drug syndicate had concealed 222 bags of the drug in plastic pellets when it shipped it from Guangdong to Dalian. Then it planned to conceal it in tires and tubing and ship it via container to Australia, according to the court.
Chinese state television said in an earlier report that Schellenberg argued in court that he was a tourist visiting China and was framed by criminals.
Before his arrest, on Dec. 1, 2014, Schellenberg had prepared to flee to Thailand from Dalian but was arrested when in transit in Guangzhou, the court said.
It did not offer further information about Schellenberg, including his age and occupation, though media reports have said he is 36 years of age and a former oil worker.
A lawyer for Schellenberg, Zhang Dongshuo, told Reuters his client would probably appeal against the death sentence. Schellenberg, who was to have been deported after serving his original sentence, had lodged an appeal after being ordered in Dalian to 15 years in prison on Nov. 20.
Canada will try to intercede
Trudeau said Canada will always intervene when a Canadian is sentenced to death in another country.
The Liaoning High Court in late December ordered the case retried after prosecutors said the sentence was too light and improper.
Beijing considers the number of people executed in China each year to be a state secret. International human rights organizations estimate the figure at around 2,000.
“China is going to face lots of questions about why this particular person, of this particular nationality, had to be retried at this particular time,” Human Rights Watch’s Washington-based China director Sophie Richardson told Reuters.
Justice Minister David Lametti, who was only just sworn in Monday morning, said he still has to be officially briefed on Meng’s extradition case.
“I won’t comment specifically, because I may have a role down the road, but I will say that we are a rule of law country, and it’s one of our most important principles and as minister of justice and attorney general for Canada I will always act to protect the rule of law,” he said.
The Huawei executive has since been released on bail and remains under surveillance as she prepares to fight extradition to the U.S., which accuses her of fraud and lying to banks about business activities in Iran.
Chinese officials haven’t called the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor acts of retaliation, but they have pointedly compared the cases, insisting the men were detained in accordance with Chinese laws while maintaining that Meng’s arrest was illegal.