BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese court sentenced a Canadian man to death Monday in a sudden retrial in a drug smuggling case that is likely to escalate tensions between the countries over the arrest of a top Chinese technology executive.
The court in northeastern Liaoning province announced that it had given Robert Lloyd Schellenberg the death penalty after rejecting his plea of innocence and convicting him of being an accessory to drug smuggling. It gave no indication that the penalty could be commuted, but Schellenberg’s fate is likely to be drawn into diplomatic negotiations over China’s demand for the top executive’s release.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Ottawa that he is extremely concerned that China chose to “arbitrarily” apply the death penalty to a Canadian citizen.
In his strongest comments yet against China, Trudeau said “all countries around the world” should be concerned that Beijing is acting arbitrarily with its justice system.
Schellenberg was detained more than four years ago and initially sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016. But suddenly last month, an appeals court agreed with prosecutors who said the sentence was too lenient, and scheduled Monday’s retrial with just four days’ notice.
The Chinese press began publicizing Schellenberg’s case in December after Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States.
Since then, China has arrested two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Both Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were arrested on vague national security allegations. A Canadian teacher was detained but released.
Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said his client now has 10 days to appeal.
Zhang said he argued in the one-day trial Monday that there was insufficient evidence to prove his client’s involvement in the drug smuggling operation. He added that prosecutors had not introduced new evidence to justify a heavier sentence.
“This is a very unique case,” Zhang told The Associated Press in a phone interview. He said the swiftness of the proceedings — with a retrial held so soon after it was ordered — was unusual, but declined to comment on whether it was related to Meng’s arrest.
Schellenberg had been prepared for a more severe punishment, so he maintained a calm demeanor in court, Zhang said.
The court said it found that Schellenberg was involved in an international drug smuggling operation and was recruited to help smuggle more than 222 kilograms (488 pounds) of methamphetamine from a warehouse in Dalian city to Australia. A Chinese person convicted of involvement in the same operation was earlier given a suspended death sentence.
Fifty people, including Canadian diplomats and foreign and domestic media, attended Monday’s trial, the court said in an online statement.
In 2009, China executed a Briton, Akmal Shaikh, on charges of smuggling heroin despite his supporters’ protest that he was mentally ill.
Earlier Monday, a Chinese spokeswoman said Kovrig, the former Canadian diplomat detained in December, does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, rejecting a complaint from Trudeau that the man’s rights were being denied.
Trudeau said last week that Chinese officials were not respecting Kovrig’s diplomatic immunity. However, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that Kovrig is no longer a diplomat and entered China on an ordinary passport and business visa.
“According to the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations and international law, he is not entitled to diplomatic immunity,” Hua said at a daily briefing. “I suggest that the relevant Canadian person carefully study the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and international law before commenting on the cases, or they would only expose themselves to ridicule with such specious remarks.”
Kovrig, a Northeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, took a leave of absence from the Canadian government.
Trudeau accused China again on Monday of not respecting longstanding practices regarding diplomatic immunity.
A former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said he believes the Chinese likely interrogated Kovrig about his time as a diplomat in China, and that would break the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. He said there is a notion of residual diplomatic immunity that means a country is not allowed to question someone on the work they did when they were a diplomat.
He told The Associated Press that “it’s difficult not to see a link” between the case and Canada’s arrest of Meng.
Washington wants Meng — the daughter of Huawei’s founder — extradited to face charges that she misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran. She is out on bail in Canada and awaiting a bail extradition proceeding next month.
China’s ambassador to Canada accused the country last week of “white supremacy” in calling for the release of the two Canadians, while describing the detentions as an “act of self-defense.”
However, Hua said the allegation that China arbitrarily detained Canadian citizens is “totally groundless.”
On Friday, Poland arrested a Huawei director and one of its own former cybersecurity experts and charged them with spying for China. That comes amid a U.S. campaign to exert pressure on its allies not to use Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecommunications network equipment, over data security concerns.
Poland’s move has raised concerns over the safety of its nationals in China, although Hua appeared to brush off such worries, emphasizing China’s desire for the “sound and steady” development of relations with Poland.
“As long as the foreign citizens in China abide by Chinese laws and regulations, they are welcomed and their safety and freedom are guaranteed,” Hua said.
Associated Press writer Robert Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.