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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a news conference at Admiralty House, in Sydney, Australia, on Feb. 28, 2020.

Loren Elliott/Reuters

Australia’s Prime Minister said Monday that his government is “very sad and concerned” by China’s sentencing of an Australian man to death for drug trafficking, and that he had repeatedly raised with China the case of the 56-year-old former actor and motivational speaker.

Karm Gilespie was arrested in 2013 at Baiyun Airport in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on charges of attempting to board an international flight with more than 16.5 pounds of methamphetamine in his check-in luggage.

The Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court announced Saturday that Mr. Gilespie had been sentenced to death and ordered the confiscation of all of his personal property.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Foreign Minister Marise Payne and other Australian officials had raised his case with their Chinese counterparts on a number of occasions.

“I and the government are very sad and concerned that an Australian citizen, Mr. Karm Gilespie, has been sentenced to death in China,” Mr. Morrison told Parliament.

“We will continue to provide Mr. Gilespie with consular assistance and engage China on his case. Our thoughts are with him, his family and his loved ones,” he added.

The death sentence comes as bilateral relations are under extraordinary strain over Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the novel coronavirus pandemic, which started in China late last year.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday that the sentence was unrelated to those tensions.

“Applying the death penalty to drug crimes that cause extremely serious harm can help in deterring and preventing drug crimes,” Mr. Zhao said.

Australia should “earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty. And the above-mentioned case has nothing to do with bilateral relations,” he added.

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Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has been trying without success to persuade his Chinese counterpart to accept a phone call over China’s decision to effectively end trade in Australian barley through crippling tariffs last month.

China has also banned beef exports from Australia’s largest abattoirs and warned Chinese against visiting the country because of pandemic-related racism.

Mr. Gilespie is among 62 Australians in detention in China, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said. Most were arrested on drug trafficking and fraud charges, The Australian newspaper reported. The department would not comment on what they were detained for.

The Australian prisoners include Henry Chin, 40, who was sentenced to death in 2005 for attempting to send 270 grams of methamphetamine to Australia a year earlier.

Birmingham called Mr. Gilespie’s sentence “distressing,” but said it shouldn’t necessarily be linked to disputes between China and Australia.

Paul Monk, former head of China analysis for the Australian Defence Department, suspected there was a link.

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“He’s been in jail for seven years and only now has he been put through a Chinese-style trial and condemned to death for drug smuggling, so I think it’s hard not to see it in the present context of diplomatic confrontation,” Mr. Monk told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“It’s spiteful, it’s vicious really,” he added.

Mr. Gilespie’s family asked friends not to speculate on his case.

“Our family is very saddened by the situation,” the family said in a statement. “We also request that friends and acquaintances of Karm refrain from speculating on his current circumstances, which we do not believe assists his case.”

Mr. Gilespie has 10 days to appeal his sentence.

Mr. Gilespie made occasional appearances as a character in the popular Australian television crime drama Blue Healers in the 1990s and toured the country performing a one-man stage show he wrote about Australian poet Banjo Paterson before reinventing himself as an entrepreneur and motivational speaker.

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Singapore-based business coach Roger Hamilton said on social media that Mr. Gilespie was a former student who had been tricked into smuggling drugs in handbags that he was told were presents for partners of Chinese businessmen in Australia.

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