BEIJING — A Chinese court has ordered a retrial for a Canadian man convicted of drug smuggling, raising the possibility of a harsher sentence — death — as well as the stakes of a running dispute between China and Canada over their respective seizures of the other country’s citizens.
A court in the city of Dalian on Saturday sided with prosecutors that Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, who was handed 15 years in prison by a lower court in 2016, received too light a sentence for trying to smuggle methamphetamine out of the port city.
Schellenberg could be executed in accordance with Chinese law if prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty. A British man was put to death in 2009 for smuggling four kilograms (about nine pounds) of heroin into China; Schellenberg allegedly tried to smuggle more than 200 kilograms of methamphetamine.
He has pleaded not guilty, arguing that he was framed.
The decision to retry Schellenberg — and the surfacing of a previously obscure case — comes weeks after Canada arrested a Chinese executive, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, during a Dec. 1 layover in Vancouver at the behest of the United States.
Meng is wanted on suspicion of defrauding banks to get around U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Her arrest infuriated China, which called it a human rights violation and vowed serious repercussions if Meng were not released. In the weeks since, Chinese authorities have seized two Canadians on national security charges, although they have denied the detentions were politically motivated.
Schellenberg’s initial arrest in 2014 and subsequent trial in 2016 were tracked by Canadian officials but did not attract any media coverage.
In an unusual move last week, China’s government issued invitations to several foreign news organizations to cover the trial in Dalian, prompting speculation that Beijing was seeking to use Schellenberg’s case to exert pressure on Ottawa.
Donald C. Clarke, a specialist in Chinese law at George Washington University, said retrials were ordered in, at most, 2 percent of Chinese criminal appeals — and foreign news organizations are typically not invited to observe them.
It is possible that “China wished to show Canada that it is deadly — literally deadly — serious about getting Meng Wanzhou released before she is extradited to the United States,” Clarke said in an email. “If this hypothesis is correct, then China has moved from merely detaining Canadians as hostages to actually threatening to kill a Canadian (who otherwise would not have been executed.)”
Richard Walker, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, the department of the Canadian government in charge of diplomatic and consular relations, said Canadian officials have been following the case for “several years” and have been providing consular assistance. He declined to provide more information about the case, citing privacy laws.
According to a statement issued by the court, prosecutors found evidence that Schellenberg was part of an international smuggling ring and believed Schellenberg’s previous “light punishment was obviously not appropriate.”
The court statement said the open trial showed that Schellenberg enjoyed full legal rights — including the right to a translator — and was attended by Canadian Embassy representatives as well as Chinese and foreign media.
The Wall Street Journal, which attended the hearing, reported instances of mistaken or omitted translations during the proceeding.
Judges deliberated for 20 minutes after the three-hour hearing, which was taken up mostly by a lengthy defense from Schellenberg’s attorney, the Journal reported.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Donald C. Clarke as saying that retrials were ordered in at most 2 percent of Chinese criminal cases. Clarke said in an emailed statement that retrials were ordered in at most 2 percent of Chinese criminal appeals. This story has been updated.