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‘Hostage politics’: Death sentence heightens China, Canada tensions

China on Tuesday vociferously defended a court’s decision to impose the death penalty on a convicted Canadian drug smuggler, escalating a diplomatic row that experts say has descended into a high-stakes game of “hostage politics”.

Robert Lloyd Schellenberg

This photograph taken and released by the Intermediate Peoples’ Court of Dalian on January 14, 2019 shows Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg (C) during his retrial on drug trafficking charges in the court in Dalian in China’s northeast Liaoning province. Photo: Intermediate Peoples’ Court of Dalian / AFP.

China’s foreign ministry blasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “irresponsible remarks” after he criticised the death sentence handed to 36-year-old Robert Lloyd Schellenberg.

Beijing and Ottawa have been squabbling since last month, when Canada arrested the chief financial officer of top Chinese telecom company Huawei on a US extradition request related to Iran sanctions violations.

In a move observers see as retaliation, Chinese authorities detained two Canadian citizens — a former diplomat and a business consultant — on suspicion of endangering national security.

Then authorities revisited the little-known case of Schellenberg, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in November for drug offences.

A month later, an upper court took up his appeal and ordered a hasty retrial in the northeastern city of Dalian after ruling that the punishment was too lenient.

The timing and swiftness of Schellenberg’s sentence, and the inclusion of new evidence presenting him as a key player in a plan to ship 222 kilograms (490 pounds) of methamphetamine to Australia, raised suspicion among observers.

“Playing hostage politics, China rushes the retrial of a Canadian suspect and sentences him to death in a fairly transparent attempt to pressure Canada,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a tweet.

Donald Clarke, a George Washington University professor specialising in Chinese law, coined an even grimmer term for the situation: “death threat diplomacy”.

“The Chinese government is not even trying to pretend that there was a fair trial here,” he said.

Trudeau expressed “extreme concern” that China had “chosen to arbitrarily” apply the death penalty.

But Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied Beijing had politicised Schellenberg’s case, calling on Canada to “respect China’s judicial sovereignty… and stop making such irresponsible remarks”.

Justin Trudeau

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. File photo: Commonwealth Secretariat, via Flickr.

Schellenberg plans to appeal, his lawyer Zhang Dongshuo told AFP.

“But it won’t be so quick, it’ll probably be some time around the middle of next week,” he said.

Ottawa had issued a new travel advisory urging citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

Beijing issued a similar response hours later, calling on Chinese citizens to “travel cautiously” after a Chinese citizen was “arbitrarily detained on the basis of a request of a third-party country”, an apparent reference to Meng’s arrest.

 Suspect timing 

China executes one or two foreigners every year — nearly all for drug offences, according to John Kamm, director of the US-based Dui Hua Foundation rights group.

Experts said retrials are rare in China, especially ones calling for a harsher sentence, but rights groups note that courts are not independent and can be influenced by the ruling Communist Party.

“What’s unusual is how this case shifted from extremely slow handling to suddenly rapid fire movement,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University.

The rare decision to allow three foreign journalists, including one from AFP, to attend the hearing makes it “clear that the Chinese government wants (the) international spotlight on this case”.

“The timing is suspect and certainly his nationality makes it all the more glaring,” she said.

 Meng at home

Schellenberg, who claimed he was innocent and framed by an acquaintance, has 10 days to appeal to the same high court that rejected his first appeal.

Lewis said the court was likely to confirm the sentence and the case would move up to the Supreme People’s Court.

The top court could confirm the death penalty, give him a two-year suspended death sentence that would be converted into a long prison term or reduce his punishment, she said.

Clarke said: “My prediction is that the Supreme People’s Court will sit on the review decision for as long as Meng’s fate remains undetermined.”

Meng Wanzhou

Meng Wanzhou. Photo: Huawei.

The fate of the other two Canadians, who have been held in undisclosed locations, remains a mystery.

Last week, Trudeau accused China of “arbitrarily and unfairly” detaining former diplomat Michael Kovrig and business consultant Michael Spavor, who were rounded up nine days after Canada arrested Meng.

The Chinese foreign ministry rejected Trudeau’s assertion that Kovrig, who now works for the International Crisis Group, still enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

Meng, meanwhile, was granted bail by a Canadian court last month, allowing her to wait for the US extradition hearing in a Vancouver house.

Beijing on Tuesday repeated its calls for her immediate release, calling on Canada to correct its “severe mistake”.

'Hostage politics': Death sentence heightens China, Canada tensions