A Chinese court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence of a Canadian man convicted of drug trafficking, one of several legal cases that have driven a diplomatic rift between Beijing and Ottawa.
The Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison. But in 2019 he was handed a death sentence in a one-day retrial, one month after Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, an executive with a Chinese telecommunications equipment company.
The court’s ruling on Schellenberg’s appeal came as Meng’s case in Canada was entering its final arguments. She is fighting an extradition request from the United States on fraud charges.
The arrest of Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei, sharply increased tensions between Canada and China. Shortly after Meng was arrested, two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – were detained in China on charges of espionage. They were tried in March and are awaiting verdicts.
China’s detention of Kovrig and Spavor was widely viewed in Canada as ruthless hostage diplomacy. They have been held in harsh isolation while Meng has been out on bail, living in a gated mansion and making trips to shops closed for her private visits.
Hu Xijin, the editor of the Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper, warned in 2018 that if Meng were extradited, “China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”
The Canadian authorities arrested Meng (49) on December 1st, 2018, at Vancouver International Airport at the request of the United States, thrusting Canada into the middle of a battle between two global powers. Meng’s formal extradition hearing will begin in Vancouver on Wednesday, after months of preliminary hearings in which the defence and prosecution have argued over the merits of the case.
Prosecutors say she had committed fraud by lying to representatives of HSBC in 2013 about Huawei’s relationship with Skycom, a company doing business in Iran, putting the bank at risk of violating American sanctions. Meng’s lawyers have argued that the case against her is unfounded and that her constitutional rights had been breached when she was arrested.
A lower court in China had ruled that Schellenberg worked with others to smuggle 220kg of methamphetamines. His lawyers had warned him that an appeal of his 2018 sentence could result in harsher punishment.
Still, the swiftness of his 2019 retrial stunned observers, with human rights advocates and legal experts saying that the timing sent a strong signal that his case was now a political matter. The quick retrial and death sentence aroused particular alarm in Canada, which abolished the death penalty decades ago.
The rejection of Schellenberg’s appeal on Tuesday had been a near certainty. The high people’s court of Liaoning province in northeastern China said in a statement on Tuesday that “the facts found in the first instance were clear, the evidence was reliable and sufficient, the conviction was accurate, the sentence was appropriate, and the trial procedures were legal”.
His case will be reviewed by China’s highest court, the supreme people’s court, which is standard procedure for death-penalty cases.
Canadian officials condemned Schellenberg’s sentence. The foreign minister, Marc Garneau, said in a statement, “We have repeatedly expressed to China our firm opposition to this cruel and inhumane punishment and will continue to engage with Chinese officials at the highest levels to grant clemency to Mr Schellenberg.”
Chinese courts have sentenced at least two other Canadians, Fan Wei and Xu Weihong, to death in separate drug cases since 2019. China leads the world in executions, although the number is believed to have declined in recent years.
The country makes few exceptions for foreigners accused of serious crimes such as drug trafficking. In 2009, a British man convicted of heroin smuggling was executed by lethal injection despite international protests and concerns about his history of mental illness. – New York Times