Chinese court sentences Canadian to death as diplomatic row deepens

World

BEIJING/OTTAWA (Reuters) – A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a Canadian man to be executed for drug smuggling, prompting Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to accuse China of using the death penalty arbitrarily.

The ruling, and Trudeau’s reaction, could aggravate already sour relations between Beijing and Ottawa following the arrest of a senior Chinese executive in Canada and China’s subsequent detention of two Canadians.

The Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in China’s northeast province of Liaoning re-tried Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, who had appealed his original 15-year prison sentence, and decided on execution, the court said in a statement.

Schellenberg was told in court he had the right to appeal to Liaoning High Court within 10 days upon receiving the ruling, the intermediate court said in a second statement.

“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 (the) death penalty … as in this case,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.

Schellenberg’s aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, said the family’s worst fears had been confirmed.

“It is rather unimaginable what he must be feeling and thinking. It is a horrific, unfortunate, heartbreaking situation,” she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

China-Canada ties turned icy in early December after Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL], was arrested in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

China denounced her arrest, warning of unspecified consequences unless Meng was released, and detained Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on unpaid leave from the embassy in Beijing, and Michael Spavor, a Canadian consultant, on suspicion of endangering state security.

Beijing has not drawn a direct link between the arrest of Meng, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly misleading multinational banks about Iran-linked transactions, and the detention of Spavor and Kovrig. Western diplomats in China’s capital, however, say the cases are a tit-for-tat reprisal.

Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to Canada, suggested in a newspaper article last week that the arrest of Kovrig and Spavor was “China’s self-defense,” but he did not give details.

Earlier on Monday, China’s government dismissed Trudeau’s statement that Kovrig enjoyed some form of diplomatic immunity.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said Trudeau should “earnestly study” the Vienna Convention governing diplomatic ties so as to “not become a laughing stock.”

Trudeau said Ottawa “will continue to engage strongly” with Beijing over Kovrig’s status and what he called China’s arbitrary use of justice.

Rights groups condemned the Schellenberg sentence while Guy St-Jacques, who was Canada’s ambassador in Beijing when Kovrig worked there, said he was concerned by how quickly the courts had acted.

“The Canadian government will make representations in Beijing, but based on past experience I am not sure whether this will work,” he told the CBC. “We are in a very difficult place.”

William Nee of Amnesty International noted that drug-related offences did not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes” to which the death penalty must be restricted under international law.

222 KG OF METHAMPHETAMINE

Drug smuggling is routinely punished severely in China. Beijing has previously executed foreign nationals convicted of drug-related crimes – a Briton was executed in 2009, prompting a British outcry over what it said was the lack of any mental health assessment.

The court said Schellenberg had conspired with others in an attempt to smuggle 222 kg (489.43 lb) of methamphetamine from China to Australia in late 2014.

Chinese state television said in an earlier report that Schellenberg argued in court that he was a tourist visiting China and was framed by criminals.

Before his arrest, Schellenberg had prepared to flee to Thailand but was arrested while in transit, the court said.

It did not offer further information about Schellenberg. Media reports have said he is a 36-year-old former oil worker.

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Intermediate People’s Court of Dalian, where the trial for Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian citizen on drug smuggling charges, will be held, in Liaoning province, China January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

A lawyer for Schellenberg, Zhang Dongshuo, told Reuters his client would probably appeal against the death sentence.

The Liaoning High Court in late December ordered the case retried after prosecutors said the sentence was too light and improper.

Beijing considers the number of people executed in China to be a state secret. International human rights organizations estimate the annual figure at around 2,000.

Reporting by Philip Wen, Christian Shepherd and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Meg Shen and Twinnie Siu in HONG KONG, David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Paul Simao

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