This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A Chinese court on Tuesday upheld a death sentence handed to Canadian national Robert Schellenberg for drug offenses amid an ongoing extradition hearing for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou that resulted in warnings of “consequences” from Beijing.
Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was convicted of smuggling, trafficking, transporting, and manufacturing drugs and handed a 15-year jail term by authorities in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning in 2018.
But after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver airport at the request of U.S. investigators on Dec. 1, 2019, Schellenberg was sentenced to death.
The Liaoning High People’s Court on Tuesday rejected Schellenberg’s appeal against that sentence.
The arrest of Meng, who is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. on charges of misleading HSBC Holdings about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran, was swiftly followed by the arrests of eight other Canadian nationals, including Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, called for clemency.
“It is not a coincidence that these are happening right now, while the case is going on in Vancouver,” Barton told journalists after the verdict, referring to Schellenberg’s and Spavor’s cases.
Schellenberg’s lawyer Zhang Dongshuo said his client appeared to take the decision calmly.
“He didn’t get the opportunity to speak, nor did his defense lawyers, because of court procedure for such hearings,” Zhang told RFA. “He appeared calm when the judgment was heard.”
He said the Supreme People’s Court must first review the case before execution can take place, something that could happen in the next month or two.
“The Supreme People’s Court has several options when reviewing a death sentence,” Zhang said. “One is to uphold the sentence, which will then be carried out.”
“Another is to order a retrial, and a third option is to revise the sentence to something more lenient, such as life imprisonment, 15-years’ imprisonment, or even to reverse the guilty verdict,” he said.
“This is rare, although precedents do exist,” Zhang warned.
According to Reuters, Michael Spavor could receive his verdict and sentencing on charges of “endangering [China’s] national security” on Wednesday.
Stealing state secrets
Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat detained amid allegations of stealing state secrets more than two years ago, stood trial behind closed doors at the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing on March 22, 2021.
Kovrig’s trial came three days after that of fellow Canadian detainee and businessman Michael Spavor in the northeastern city of Dandong.
The espionage charges are deemed “particularly serious” by state prosecutors, meaning that Kovrig, 50, and Spavor, 44, could face sentences of anything between 10 years and life imprisonment.
Kovrig is accused of using an ordinary passport and business visa to enter China “to steal sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China since 2017,” Chinese state media have reported.
Spavor’s charges rested on the allegation that he was “a key source of intelligence” for Kovrig, according to the Global Times newspaper.
Kovrig and Spavor were detained days after the arrest of Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018, sparking criticism that the move was a form of “hostage diplomacy” on the part of Beijing.
A highly political case
Joseph Cheng, former politics lecturer at Hong Kong’s City University, said the case is highly political, especially given that there is no judicial independence under the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“There are many precedents … for such hostage diplomacy, which we have seen emerge in the relationships between China and Western countries,” Cheng said. “This politicization is linked to the Meng Wanzhou case.”
“There is also the fact that the judiciary in China isn’t independent, and that cases involving foreigners are particularly political,” he said.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, initially lost a legal bid to avoid extradition to the United States to face bank fraud charges, though her case won’t be decided finally until around Aug. 20.
China has repeatedly called for her release, and has warned Canada that it could face consequences for aiding the United States in her case.
Canada’s Globe and Mail quoted Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole as accusing China of condemning Canadian Robert Schellenberg to death in retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of Meng.
“The denial of Robert Schellenberg’s appeals must be seen for what it is – a foreign government planning to take the life of a Canadian for political reasons. The use of the death penalty is bad enough, but to impose it for political reasons is inexcusable.”