A Chinese court Saturday ordered the retrial of a Canadian man on a drug-smuggling charge after siding with prosecutors who argued that his original 15-year prison sentence for his conviction had been too light.
The decision threatened to create another source of contention between two countries whose relations have deteriorated rapidly this month after a string of arrests.
The Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, was arrested in 2014 and tried and sentenced in obscurity. But he is likely to became a focus of attention in Canada after the court in Dalian, a port city in northeast China, responded to his appeal against a sentence he received last month by siding with prosecutors and opening the possibility of an even harsher sentence.
If the prosecutors prevail in the retrial, Schellenberg could be sentenced to a longer term, or even the death penalty, at a time when China and Canada are locked in an escalating dispute that began with the arrest in Vancouver of a prominent Chinese technology executive.
According to a report from China’s official court news service, prosecutors told the high court of Liaoning province, where the case was heard, that the trial court decision had underplayed Schellenberg’s crimes by treating him as an accessory in a failed crime.
Emerging evidence, they said, indicated that he “very likely participated in organized international drug trafficking activities, and played an important role in smuggling the drugs.”
“In the hearing, the court accepted the opinion of the procuratorate,” the court announcement said, referring to the Chinese prosecution agency.
The report did not say how Schellenberg had responded to the prosecutors’ claims. Experts said before the hearing Saturday that the Chinese government could use his case to turn up pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada.
“If Mr. Schellenberg is condemned to death, Canadians would be distressed as Canada abolished the death penalty completely many years ago,” said Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Beijing and now teaches at Brock University in Ontario.
The appeal hearing came at the end of a month when ties between Ottawa and Beijing deteriorated sharply. Earlier this month, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese technology company Huawei, at the request of prosecutors in New York who accuse her of committing fraud to help the company evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Meng was released on bail in Vancouver, and Canadian legal authorities will decide whether she should be extradited to the United States — a decision that she could fight in Canadian courts.
More than a week after her arrest, Chinese police arrested two Canadians — a former diplomat, Michael Kovrig; and a businessman, Michael Spavor — in what experts said appeared to be a bid to seek leverage over Meng’s fate. A Canadian caught in China and accused of working without a valid visa was also held for a short time.
Schellenberg was pitched into these tensions Wednesday, after a news website in Dalian took note of his appeal hearing, and other Chinese news outlets began covering the case, including The Global Times, a strident English-language tabloid controlled by the Communist Party.
Referring to the Global Times report, Wenran Jiang, a senior fellow at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, said that it was unclear whether the Chinese government was directly behind the story but that China seemed to be pointing fingers at Canada at a time when Canada was accusing China of breaching the rule of law.
“The message seems to be, ‘Look, here you have another Canadian disobeying law and order in China — pay attention,’” he said.
Schellenberg, 36, was accused of smuggling nearly 500 pounds of methamphetamine, The Global Times said Saturday, though it did not names its source.
Chinese courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and they rarely find defendants not guilty. Schellenberg was tried in March 2016, but the court handed down its verdict and sentence last month. If he is sentenced to death at the retrial, China’s highest court would first review the decision, and Canadian diplomats would almost certainly press for a less-severe punishment.
“The fact is that China’s judiciary is not independent of China’s political process,” Burton, the former diplomat, said. “This matter is almost certainly caught up in the current dispute between Ottawa and Beijing over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.”
Between 2009 and 2015, at least 19 foreigners were executed in China for drug trafficking, said John Kamm, chairman of the Dui Hua Foundation, a group based in San Francisco that monitors human rights in China. The court could also endorse a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, which would almost surely be converted to a long prison term, he said.
Canadian authorities have so far sought to play down any link between the Schellenberg and Huawei cases.
“Global Affairs Canada has been following this case for several years and has been providing consular assistance to the Canadian citizen since they were first detained,” the Canadian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday. It said privacy laws prevented it from giving more information.
But some commentators in Canada saw a more ominous purpose behind the highly publicized reopening of Schellenberg’s case.
An article in The National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, said Schellenberg “might now be a pawn in the much bigger legal battle over Canada’s arrest of a Huawei tech company executive.”
Whatever happens to Schellenberg, the diplomatic strains exposed this month seem likely to persist.
In an interview about Spavor and Kovrig this month, David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the arrests were a warning for Canada and other Western countries engaging with China in the hope that it would evolve into a moderate, law-abiding nation.
“China has not learned to embrace the rule of law and reforms,” he said. “The West needs to hold China more accountable.”