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Opinion Schellenberg case illustrates the cruelty and injustice of China’s death penalty

Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.

There has been much discussion and concern, legitimately so, of the highly charged politicized context in which Canadian citizen Robert Schellenberg has suddenly and frighteningly found himself sentenced to death in China.

In a span of just over two weeks, he lost an appeal of his earlier conviction and 15-year prison term on drug charges, leading to an unusually speedy retrial and almost instantaneous pronouncement of a death sentence.

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All of this, of course, unfolded against the backdrop of China’s continuing anger and apparent retaliatory measures related to the arrest in Canada, further to a U.S. extradition warrant, of Meng Wanzhou, a top official with Chinese tech giant Huawei.

The political dimension to the case – and the almost inescapable conclusion that this is one more move by the Chinese government to pressure Canada to drop the extradition case – has dominated media coverage and public debate. As well, it comes on top of the earlier arrest on unspecified state security accusations of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

But there is another aspect to the case that should also provoke alarm and outrage. That Mr. Schellenberg has been sentenced to death on drug charges, after proceedings that certainly fall short of international fair-trial requirements, is a stark illustration of the harrowing reality of the death penalty in China.

China is by far the world’s leading executioner. The true number is impossible to know, given the levels of secrecy that shroud the imposition and carrying out of death sentences. Because of that total lack of transparency, years ago Amnesty International stopped estimating how frequently the death penalty is used in China. We knew we could not get anywhere close to the truth and risked dramatically underreporting the staggering extent of executions in the country.

What is clear is that China puts more people to death every year than the rest of the world combined.

One reason for those high numbers is the dizzying array of offences – 46 different crimes – that are punishable by death in China, including a variety of drug-related crimes. Also on the list of capital crimes in China: robbery, financial fraud, bribery, assault and kidnapping. Those examples are all completely out of step with international human-rights obligations.

Growing numbers of countries, including Canada, long ago committed themselves to international standards that fully and absolutely prohibit the death penalty in all circumstances. At the same time, however, international law does allow countries to retain use of the death penalty if they so choose. That number is in steady, universal decline, leaving China (and, ironically, the United States, the other key player in the extradition drama behind all of this) as an increasingly isolated outlier.

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The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not yet ratified, specifies that the death penalty may be “imposed only for the most serious crimes.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee has concluded that it is limited to crimes involving “intentional killing.” Clearly China’s approach, as Mr. Schellenberg is now experiencing firsthand, goes far beyond that essential restriction.

These concerns about secrecy around the use of the death penalty and the range of crimes punishable by death are compounded by the failings of due process that bedevil the Chinese justice system more widely. That seems evident in the handling of Mr. Schellenberg’s appeal and retrial, notably the unbelievable speed with which both rulings went against him and the immediate imposition of the death sentence.

Countries, including Canada, have pushed China over the years on its abysmal record with respect to the death penalty. But as with all human-rights diplomacy with China, the forcefulness of those efforts has generally paled alongside the enthusiasm to pursue increased trade. That now comes home to roost for Canada.

Canada must continue to pull out all the stops in the drive to save Mr. Schellenberg’s life, including rallying other governments to our side.

And that determination must be sustained across the international community in a concerted effort to address the cruelties and injustices behind the constant parade of executions in China. It is time for the Chinese government to join the clear global momentum to end the death penalty, once and for all.

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