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Trudeau expresses ‘extreme concern’ after Canadian sentenced to death on drug charges in China

A general view of the Intermediate People's Court of Dalian, where the retrial for Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian citizen convicted on drug smuggling charges, was held, in Liaoning province, China, on Jan. 14.
A general view of the Intermediate People's Court of Dalian, where the retrial for Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian citizen convicted on drug smuggling charges, was held, in Liaoning province, China, on Jan. 14. (China Stringer Network/Reuters)

BEIJING — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday expressed “extreme concern” after a Chinese court sentenced a Canadian man to death in a retrial ordered not long after the arrest in Vancouver of a Chinese technology executive.

A death sentence for Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, 36, complicates an ongoing standoff over the arrest of Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer on U.S. charges and the subsequent detention in China of two Canadians on national security charges.

In his strongest-yet statement on the matter, Trudeau suggested he sees Schellenberg’s new sentence as a political move. “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 a death penalty,” he told reporters in Ottawa. 

A Canadian court on Dec. 11 granted bail to a top executive of Huawei Technologies while she awaits a hearing for extradition to the U.S. on fraud charges. (Video: Reuters)

Later Monday, Canada’s Foreign Ministry updated its travel advisory for China to include a warning about the “arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” Earlier this month, the State Department issued a similar warning.

China has strongly denied that political factors influenced its treatment of Schellenberg, who was found guilty of participating in a ring that sought to smuggle more than 200 kilograms of methamphetamine out of the port city of Dalian. China has a zero-tolerance drugs policy, and there is precedent for China executing foreign nationals convicted of trafficking.

But the timing of Schellenberg’s appeal hearing in December and subsequent retrial shortly after the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou has been conspicuous, and the episode has left Canada caught in the middle of a broader conflict between the United States and China that has also dragged Canada-China ties to new lows.

“Over the years, there have been low points, but nothing compared to this,” said Lynette H. Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “This is going to be perceived by the Canadian public as another tit-for-tat strategy. It is going to be particularly bad because this country does not have the death sentence.”

The standoff started with Meng’s Dec. 1 arrest in Canada on U.S. charges related to alleged violations of Iran sanctions.

Days after Meng was apprehended in Vancouver, Chinese authorities detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians living in China, on suspicion of endangering national security. Schellenberg’s case came to light after that. 

Schellenberg, 36, was arrested in 2014 and was later sentenced to a 15-year prison term for smuggling methamphetamine.

His case went largely unnoticed until a recent retrial where, amid the other arrests, prosecutors said new evidence implicated the Vancouver native in a drug trafficking operation. 

Earlier this month, the Chinese government took the rare step of inviting foreign media to attend his appeal hearing — prompting speculation that Beijing wanted to use Schellenberg’s case to exert pressure on Ottawa to free Meng.

“The procedures in Mr. Schellenberg’s case would be unusual even if he was a Chinese national. The fact that he is a Canadian, combined with the welcoming of foreign media to view court proceedings, makes it downright suspicious,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University.

The Dalian Intermediate People’s Court on Monday announced Schellenberg’s new sentence in an online statement that detailed how he conspired with three others to pack pellets of methamphetamine in tires to ship to Australia.

Three foreign media outlets were again invited by Chinese authorities to sit among 70 witnesses in the courtroom, including ­Canadian diplomats, according to Agence France-Presse.

After a 12 hour-long trial — including breaks — the court adjourned for an hour before a judge announced the sentence. Schellenberg nodded and said he understood, an AFP reporter said on Twitter.

Schellenberg has the option of appealing again within 10 days, the court said. His case is expected to be reviewed by higher courts before the death sentence is carried out, a review process that could drag on for years. He would be the first Canadian citizen executed by the Chinese government, said John Kamm, a San Francisco-based activist who works to free political prisoners in China. Kamm said the death sentence was issued “with undue haste and on the basis of weak and circumstantial evidence.”

China’s Foreign Ministry has rejected accusations that political motivations are driving the treatment of the Canadian detainees, maintaining that their cases have been handled in accordance with Chinese law.

But comments by the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, have appeared to acknowledge that Beijing took “self-defense” actions in response to Meng’s arrest.

In an op-ed published last week in the Hill Times, an Ottawa newspaper, the Chinese diplomat lashed out at “Western egotism and white supremacy,” arguing that Canadians who criticized China’s treatment of the Canadians were guilty of racism and double standards.

“To those people, China’s self-defense is an offense to Canada,” Lu wrote.

The dispute puts Trudeau’s government in a tough spot. 

Earlier in his tenure, Trudeau seemed eager to build a better relationship with China as part of a broader effort to diversify Canada’s trading relationships and reduce the country’s reliance on the United States. 

Now, with stories about detained Canadians dominating the domestic news cycle, he faces pressure to take a tough stand with Beijing but has limited leverage when it comes to taking action, analysts said. 

Trudeau and other Canadian officials have stressed that Meng’s arrest was made in accordance with the extradition agreement between Canada and the United States and that her case must play out according to Canadian law.

Unless U.S. officials decide not to proceed with their case against Meng, she will probably remain in Canadian custody for months, or even years, to come.

Rauhala reported from Washington.

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