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Canadian Robert Schellenberg sentenced to death in China for drug trafficking, PM Justin Trudeau vows to ‘intercede’

  • Retrial of 36-year-old former oil worker Robert Schellenberg on methamphetamine charges plays out against background of international tensions
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused China of ‘arbitrarily’ applying the death penalty against Schellenberg
PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2019, 7:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2019, 5:30pm

A Chinese court on Monday sentenced Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg to death for drug trafficking in a dramatic turn of events that prompted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to vow to “intercede” in the case.

Trudeau expressed “extreme concern” and accused Beijing of “arbitrarily” applying the death sentence against Schellenberg.

In his strongest comments yet against China, Trudeau said “all countries around the world” should be concerned by Beijing’s behaviour.

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China’s official Xinhua news agency had earlier reported that the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court tried Schellenberg “in accordance with the law” and handed down the death penalty. The court also ruled that all his property would be confiscated. Schellenberg can now appeal the decision.

“The court will later announce more detailed information on the trial,” Xinhua said on Monday evening. The retrial on Monday was attended by about 70 observers including a small group of foreign journalists.

Schellenberg, a 36-year-old former oil worker, was initially detained in Liaoning province in 2015. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined 150,000 yuan (US$22,000) in November last year for smuggling more than 200kg (441 pounds) of methamphetamine in China.

He appealed against the sentence to the Liaoning High People’s Court, where prosecutors argued the sentence was too lenient. The court heard the appeal on December 29 and ordered a retrial in the lower court.

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A report published on Monday by the Dalian court said in 2014, Schellenberg directed a translator to carry out a series of activities, including the purchase of car tyres to hide the methamphetamine for smuggling purposes.

The report said Schellenberg tried to flee to Thailand after he became aware of the police investigation but was intercepted in Guangzhou.

“After verifying the evidence, the court determined that the case is strong and Schellenberg is the principal culprit,” the report said. “In accordance with China’s criminal law, the court found him guilty and sentenced him to death for drug trafficking and will confiscate all of his property.”

In his defence at the retrial, Schellenberg argued that he was a tourist framed by criminals, rejecting allegations made by the prosecutors.

In his opening statement, Schellenberg said he had gone to China after travelling through Southeast Asia, including Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

He said a friend had recommended Xu Qing as a translator, and Schellenberg was then swept up in what turned out to be an international drug trafficking syndicate.

“This is a case about Xu Qing. He is an international drug smuggler and a liar,” Schellenberg told the court.

Prosecutors presented Xu as a witness, who in nearly two hours of testimony did not look at Schellenberg. When pressed on details, Xu frequently told the court he could not remember them and had to refer to a written statement for details, including when Schellenberg questioned him about 180,000 yuan he was purportedly given.

Two other Chinese men were involved in the case – one was sentenced to life in jail, while the other was given a suspended death sentence.

After the retrial, Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said: “The sentence is very regretful.”

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When asked if his client would appeal, Zhang replied: “The next steps will be up to Schellenberg – I am planning to talk to him early next week sometime, perhaps Tuesday or Wednesday.

“The initial evidence is not enough to convict him. Even though the court thinks he is guilty, the additional criminal evidence presented by the prosecutors cannot be used to add to his sentence. The announcement of the sentencing was all very fast, it took around 20 minutes. The deliberation process was around one hour,” said Zhang, whose appointment was proposed by Canadian consular officials and agreed to by Schellenberg.

“When we visited Schellenberg last week, he was quite calm because we walked him through the possibilities from the retrial, including the possibility of the death penalty,” he added.

But Zhang would not comment on whether he felt the case had been caught up in the diplomatic tussle between China and Canada, saying only that it was “an unusual case”.

The sentencing on Monday came against the backdrop of increased tensions between Canada and China. The two countries have been at odds since the arrest of Huawei Technologies chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December on suspicion of violating US sanctions against Iran.

That was followed by China’s detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor on suspicion of endangering national security.

In earlier interviews, Schellenberg’s aunt Lauri Nelson-Jones said she was concerned that increasing tensions between Beijing and Ottawa could mean a tougher sentence for her nephew.

In Ottawa, Trudeau said: “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.

He said his government had vowed to intercede whenever a Canadian faced the death penalty, “as we have in this case”.

Trudeau said China had taken a “choice not to respect long-standing practices and principles in regards to diplomatic immunity”, an apparent reference to Kovrig’s status.

On Friday, Donald Clarke, a specialist in Chinese law at George Washington University, said in a blog post that Schellenberg’s case had several unusual features, including the delay in trial and sentencing, the rare decision for and extraordinary speed in scheduling a retrial, and invitations to international media to observe the case.

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“Sending the case back for retrial gives China the opportunity to threaten death and to drag out that threat for as long as necessary,” he wrote. “Schellenberg could, for example, be sentenced to death with a two-year suspension.

“Even though such sentences are virtually always commuted when the two-year period expires, everyone would understand that the Chinese authorities could always find a reason not to commute.”

One plausible explanation was that China wanted to show Canada it was “deadly – literally deadly – serious about getting Meng Wanzhou released”, Clarke said.

China has executed other foreigners for drug-related crimes in the past, including a Japanese national in 2014 and a Filipino in 2013.

Additional reporting by Mimi Lau and Agence France-Presse