Canadian Fights Death Penalty Case in China, Raising Stakes in Rift

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China’s diplomatic clash with Canada reached its highest stakes on Monday, when a Canadian man vigorously denied that he was a knowing participant in a drug smuggling operation at a retrial in northeast China that could lead to his execution.

Last month a court ordered the Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, to be retried after he appealed a 15-year prison sentence for smuggling methamphetamines. Against a backdrop of sharply increased tensions between China and Canada, the court sided with prosecutors who called for a stiffer sentence at a new trial.

In China, that sentence could mean the death penalty. At the trial on Monday, the prosecutors and Mr. Schellenberg offered starkly different accounts of his role in the smuggling operation.

Prosecutors told the court that they “now have evidence that highly suggests Schellenberg was involved in organized international drug crime,” China’s central television broadcaster said in an online report. “Schellenberg argued that he was a tourist visiting China and framed by criminals.”

Mr. Schellenberg’s unusually swift appeal hearing and retrial came after the Chinese government was incensed by the December arrest in Vancouver, British Columbia, of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer.

Mr. Schellenberg’s family fears that he has become a bargaining chip for Beijing to seek Ms. Meng’s release, said his aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones.

“He’s become a pawn,” she said. “We can only guess, but that is definitely what it looks like, and that is incredibly worrisome. We’re just worried that it won’t be a fair trial or a fair outcome.”

As well as ordering a retrial for Mr. Schellenberg, the Chinese authorities arrested two Canadians last month: Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat; and Michael Spavor, a businessman.

Those men have been accused of “endangering national security,” a sweeping charge that can include espionage. The police, however, have not announced any specific allegations against them while they 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 comment from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, who on Friday suggested that Mr. Kovrig had such protection.

Mr. Kovrig, who works for the International Crisis Group, is on leave from Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign service. The International Crisis Group, which gives advice on solving conflicts, has adamantly 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 receive the death penalty created a potent threat, they said.

“Sending the case back for retrial gives China the opportunity to threaten death and to drag out that threat for as long as necessary,” Donald Clarke, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who is an expert on Chinese law, wrote in a commentary last week for Lawfare, a national security blog.

“The case appears to reinforce the message, previously suggested by the detentions of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, that China views the holding of human hostages as an acceptable way to conduct diplomacy,” Professor Clarke wrote.

Mr. Schellenberg stood on Monday for his latest trial in Dalian, a port city in northeast China. By the afternoon, there was no sign when the court would end proceedings or deliver a verdict.

Before his arrest in 2014, Mr. Schellenberg, 36, 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.

Mr. Schellenberg grew up in Abbotsford, British Columbia, surrounded by a large extended family. He kept in irregular contact with his family as he roamed around Asia, especially Thailand, Ms. Nelson-Jones 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, Mr. Schellenberg’s family learned that he had been arrested.

“The next call that my brother got was from the consulate, from Global Affairs Canada, telling him that Robert was detained,” Ms. Nelson-Jones said.

After his arrest, Mr. Schellenberg was held for 15 months before his first trial, and it took another 32 months before a court declared him guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for his role in a failed attempt to smuggle drugs from China to Australia.

The tempo of Mr. Schellenberg’s case has accelerated since Ms. Meng’s arrest. She 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.

At Mr. Schellenberg’s appeal hearing last month, prosecutors said that 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 said that Mr. Schellenberg was heavily involved in a failed attempt to smuggle methamphetamines to Australia in pellets stuffed inside tires. They 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.

“He is an international drug smuggler and a liar,” Mr. Schellenberg said, according to the agency.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied that Mr. Schellenberg’s trial and the arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have anything to do with 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.

“If there are no violations, I do hope that these people won’t just for their own sake politicize legal issues,” Mr. Lu said.

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 that the calls to release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor amounted to an assertion of “Western egotism and white supremacy.”

“They said that by arresting two Canadian citizens as retaliation for Canada’s detention of Meng, China was bullying Canada,” Mr. Lu wrote. “To those people, China’s self-defense is an offense to Canada.”

By Chris Buckley
New york times 

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