Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg has been sentenced to death in China for alleged drug smuggling. This, in the midst of quite the diplomatic heat raging between the West and China over the most recent arrest of a Chinese executive in British Columbia, and most famously, Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s house arrest in Vancouver.
What makes Mr. Schellenberg’s execution ruling even more eyebrow-raising for the West is that it came from a retrial. He was originally given a 15-year sentence, which took 47 months of him in detention to receive, and his retrial only took one day. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters, “I will say 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 death penalty”.
In court, Mr. Schellenberg was accused of trying to ship approximately 500 pounds of methamphetamine from China to Australia. Though, he argued that he was in China only as a tourist and was framed by criminals. Regardless of his guilt, the timing and severity of the trial have many in the international community concerned that China and the West are engaged in a dangerous tit-for-tat game. When asked about the legitimacy of such concerns in the Schellenberg trial, China’s Ministry of Foreign affairs denied all allegations that the case was politically motivated. However, many in the West remain highly skeptical and see this trial as tinged with revenge.
China Sentences a Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, to Death
BEIJING — China’s diplomatic clash with Canada escalated sharply on Monday, when a Chinese court sentenced a Canadian to death for drug smuggling at a one-day retrial ordered weeks after a Chinese executive’s arrest in Canada.
In announcing the death penalty against the Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, the court, in the northeast city of Dalian, gave no indication that his sentence might be reduced to prison time.
Mr. Schellenberg’s fate could become a volatile factor in diplomacy between Beijing and Ottawa in the aftermath of the arrest by Canadian authorities of a Chinese technology executive in British Columbia last month — a move that incensed the Chinese government.
Mr. Schellenberg had appealed a 15-year prison sentence for smuggling methamphetamines. But during his retrial, against the backdrop of sharply increased tensions between China and Canada, the court sided with prosecutors who called for capital punishment.
“The evidence is compelling and ample, and the criminal charges are well founded,” the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court said of Mr. Schellenberg’s death sentence, according to an official account published online. “Schellenberg was a principal culprit.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, reacting to the death sentence, said his government would try to intercede in Mr. Schellenberg’s case.
“I will say 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 death penalty” in cases like this one, he told reporters in Ottawa.
Mr. Schellenberg’s aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, said by telephone from Maryland that the decision was the “worst-case scenario.”
“I didn’t think we’d get a verdict this fast,” Ms. Nelson-Jones said, adding that she was trying to contact his immediate family. “It’s shocking, especially from a North American view of how things go.”
At the trial on Monday, the prosecutors and judges laid out an account of a failed drug-smuggling operation starkly at odds with Mr. Schellenberg’s testimony.
He had told the court that he was a “tourist visiting China and framed by criminals,” China’s central television broadcaster said in an online report.
But the court saw Mr. Schellenberg as a skilled participant in the smuggling scheme, which involved trying to ship nearly 500 pounds of methamphetamines to Australia in pellets stuffed inside tires.
The court report said Mr. Schellenberg had assessed the equipment for the planned crime — including tires, tubes and containers — and suggested delaying the drug shipment to allow for more preparation.
The Chinese executive arrested in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer, is out on bail and under house arrest in Canada until the courts there decide whether she can be extradited to the United States.
American prosecutors have accused her of fraudulent bank transactions related to business deals with Iran that violated United States sanctions.
Before the retrial, Mr. 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.
Mr. Schellenberg’s sentence must still be examined and ratified by the country’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court.
Last month, the Chinese authorities arrested two other Canadians — Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman — accusing them of “endangering national security.”
The police, however, have not announced any specific allegations, and the two men remain in secret detention, denied visits from lawyers and family members.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said Mr. Kovrig did not have diplomatic immunity, rejecting a suggestion by Mr. Trudeau on Friday that Mr. Kovrig enjoyed such protection.
Mr. Kovrig, who works for the International Crisis Group, is on leave from Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign service. The organization, which gives advice on solving conflicts, has denied that Mr. 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. The prospect that Mr. Schellenberg could be executed created a potent threat, they said.
In Mr. Schellenberg’s first trial, the court took over two and half years to announce a 15-year prison sentence, but this time the court took less than a day to try, convict and sentence him to death, Donald C. Clarke, a specialist in Chinese law at the George Washington University, noted in an email.
“We should draw the conclusion that the Chinese government very obviously wants us to draw: this is a political case,” Professor Clarke said. “Schellenberg’s fate will have nothing to do with his individual guilt or innocence.”
China’s president and Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, could, in tandem with China’s national legislature, pardon Mr. Schellenberg.
“Obviously, however, if Xi Jinping wants something to happen in this case, it will happen,” Professor Clarke said. “The word would go out and the courts would do as they were told.”
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Mr. Schellenberg’s second trial seemed blatantly orchestrated and political because of the timing, the government appeal of the original sentence and the decision to allow foreign journalists into the courtroom.
“If they would like to show transparency, they would have started years ago,” he said.
Mr. Saint-Jacques, ambassador from 2012 to 2016, said that during that time, two Canadians were sentenced to death for drug crimes, and executed, despite many pleas for their lives made directly by the then Canadian Prime Minister.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied that Mr. Schellenberg’s trial and the arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are related to Ms. Meng’s arrest. At a news briefing on Friday, a spokesman for the ministry, Lu Kang, said critics should not undermine Chinese law for political purposes.
But Chinese officials have diluted that argument by suggesting that their government was engaged in “defense” after the arrest of Ms. Meng.
In an op-ed for a Canadian newspaper last week, the Chinese ambassador to Ottawa, Lu Shaye, said the calls to release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor amounted to an assertion of “Western egotism and white supremacy.”
Mr. Schellenberg, 36, grew up in Abbotsford, British Columbia, surrounded by a large extended family.
Before his arrest in 2014, he had been an adventurous traveler who used earnings from working in Alberta’s oil fields to pay for his travels in Asia, Ms. Nelson-Jones said by telephone. He kept in irregular contact with his family, she said.
“He called and told his dad — my brother — that he was heading off to China, and it was just like, ‘O.K., whatever,’” she said. About a month later, the family learned he had been arrested.
Mr. Schellenberg was detained for 15 months before his first trial, and it took an additional 32 months before a court declared him guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
At Mr. Schellenberg’s appeal hearing last month, prosecutors said emerging evidence indicated he had played a bigger role in a drug trafficking network, and so his initial sentence was too light.
At the retrial, prosecutors produced a witness, Xu Qing, to testify against the Canadian. But Mr. Schellenberg said he was unwittingly recruited into the scheme by Mr. Xu, reported Agence France-Presse, one of three foreign news outlets allowed into the court.
In recent years, Chinese courts have repeatedly made the point that foreigners will not be treated differently from Chinese nationals in drug convictions. Even so, death sentences for citizens of Western countries are rare in these cases.
Between 2009 and 2015, China executed at least 19 foreigners for drug trafficking, according to John Kamm, chairman of the Dui Hua Foundation, a group based in San Francisco that monitors human rights in China.
Mr. Kamm said he was astonished by the speed and severity of the sentence against Mr. Schellenberg.
Mr. Kamm noted that Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese newspaper, had warned before the sentencing that if Canada went ahead with Ms. Meng’s extradition to the United States, “China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”
Source: The New York Times, Chris Buckley, Jan. 14, 2019. Photo credit to Intermediate Peoples’ Court of Dalian.