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China’s death sentence for Canadian prompts protest, warnings

Chinese police. (Beijing Patrol/Flickr)
January 16, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

An international human rights group on Tuesday called on China to revoke the death penalty handed down by a court in its northeastern province of Liaoning to a Canadian national found guilty of drug smuggling, while Ottawa has warned its citizens that traveling to China should exercise “a high degree of caution” amid rising tensions in the wake of its arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Robert Schellenberg was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug smuggling last November by the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court. He denied the charges, and the case proceeded to appeal.

But prosecutors at an appeal hearing on Dec. 29, less than a month after Meng’s arrest in Vancouver, said new evidence had led them to believe that a harsher sentence was merited, and ordered a retrial in the same court.

London-based rights group Amnesty International called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to revoke the sentence, saying that it “does not deliver justice.”

Schellenberg was sentenced to death by the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court on Monday, after China detained 13 Canadian nationals in the wake of the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of its flagship telecoms company Huawei.

His lawyer Zhang Dongshuo said his client has pleaded not guilty all along, and plans to appeal again.

“I and the second defense attorney met with Schellenberg this morning,” Zhang said. “He said he wanted to appeal, and my colleague has already told him the points he needs to raise in the appeal.”

Zhang said the court had ignored evidence presented by the defense in passing its sentence, and that it was “hard to predict” whether the provincial-level Higher People’s Court would take the same approach.

Travel warning

Canada has now revised its travel advice to its citizens, warning them against travel to China.

“Chinese authorities apply, sometimes arbitrarily, the death penalty for both violent and non-violent crimes,” the travel advice on the official government website said on Tuesday.

“There are identifiable safety and security concerns or the safety and security situation could change with little notice,” the advice said. “You should exercise a high degree of caution at all times, monitor local media and follow the instructions of local authorities.”

The 13 Canadians were detained after Chinese officials vowed to retaliate for the arrest of Meng, who is wanted for questioning by investigators in the U.S. over alleged bank fraud linked to the breach of sanctions against Iran.

While at least eight have since been released, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and tourism consultant Michael Spavor remain in detention on suspicion of “endangering national security.”

“Chinese authorities may define certain behaviours and activities as “endangering national security” that would not be considered as such in Canada,” the Canadian government advisory said.

“Chinese authorities may detain you for up to six months before you are formally arrested … access to legal representation is frequently denied [and] trials often take place in closed court.”

Call to revoke

Meanwhile, London-based rights group Amnesty International called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to revoke the sentence, saying that it “does not deliver justice.”

“The death sentence given to Robert Schellenberg does not deliver justice,” China researcher William Nee said. “We urge the Chinese authorities to revoke this sentence. Drug-related offences do not meet international standards for the use of capital punishment.”

Nee added: “Many will be questioning the timing of this decision. We have seen before that in highly politicized cases the trial is often a mere spectacle with the outcome already decided.”

He said the retrial had been sudden and judgment rushed, highlighting problems with China judicial system.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the sentence was “arbitrary.”

“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 facing a Canadian,” he said on Monday.

But Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied” with his response.

“We urge the Canadian side to respect the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty, correct mistakes, and stop publishing irresponsible remarks,” Hua told a regular news briefing on Tuesday, adding that China doesn’t “politicize” legal cases.

Canadian media reported that Schellenberg had been previously jailed in Canada for drug trafficking.