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China has interrogated detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig about his past diplomatic work there, prompting Ottawa to protest that Beijing is violating the rules of diplomatic immunity enshrined in international law, according to sources.

Canadian officials summoned Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye for talks last Thursday, objecting to the questioning, and arguing they are a violation that leaves Beijing with two options in the Canadian’s case: Either it can ask Canada to waive Mr. Kovrig’s diplomatic immunity, which Ottawa will refuse, or it can deport him to Canada.

Mr. Lu is slated to meet Thursday with members of the Canadian press.

That has added a behind-the-scenes dispute to tensions that continue to simmer in public since the Dec. 1 arrest by Canadian police of Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou, at the request of U.S. authorities. On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called the death sentence issued for Canadian Robert Schellenberg, convicted of drug trafficking in China, “inhumane” – and appealed for his life to be spared. China’s foreign ministry warned its citizens about travel to Canada and rebuked Ottawa for “irresponsible remarks” after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Beijing of arbitrarily enforcing its laws.

But away from the public eye, the nature of the questioning of Mr. Kovrig has added a new layer to the tensions over the jailing of the former diplomat, and another Canadian, Michael Spavor. Now Canada is raising concerns that China has violated the long-standing principles that protect international diplomacy, and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Mr. Trudeau last week publicly accused China of refusing to accept the principles of diplomatic immunity. But that prompted experts to opine that Mr. Trudeau was wrong, because Mr. Kovrig is no longer an active diplomat, and therefore not covered by diplomatic immunity that protects him from arrest.

What Mr. Trudeau did not reveal is that it was the questioning of Mr. Kovrig that sparked the accusation.

The Vienna Convention protects current diplomats from arrest, but Article 39 explicitly covers former diplomats’ past work with immunity that continues after the individual loses diplomatic status. That is meant to protect the conduct of diplomacy by barring countries from interrogating former diplomats to gain information.

Sources with knowledge of the matter spoke to The Globe and Mail, but are not named because they were not authorized to speak about the matter.

Canadians and Chinese justice: A who’s who of the political feud so far

Despite Mr. Trudeau’s public comment chastising China for failing to respect diplomatic immunity, the Canadian government has chosen to keep the nature of the dispute out of the public eye, and instead try to quietly muster diplomatic support from other countries.

The report that Beijing appears to be breaching the standard rules around diplomacy is perturbing other countries, said one representative of a foreign country.

Mr. Kovrig worked as a diplomat in China from 2014 to 2016, primarily writing reports about Chinese domestic affairs and some geopolitical issues in the region.

The Canadian government has for weeks been trying to rally like-minded countries to press Beijing about the detentions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, which are believed to be retaliation for Ms. Meng’s case – and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Australia have all issued statements of support. The Prime Minister’s Office said this week that Mr. Trudeau raised the issue in calls with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

The U.S. State department is condemning as “politically motivated” China’s sentencing of Schellenberg to death. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the case with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland Tuesday, his office said.

“They expressed their concerns about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals,” a spokesman for Mr. Pompeo, Robert Palladino, said in a statement Wednesday. “They noted their continued commitment to Canada’s conduct of a fair, unbiased, and transparent legal proceeding and U.S. extradition request with respect to Ms. Meng Wanzhou."

Separately, Ms. Freeland asked China on Tuesday for clemency in the case of Mr. Schellenberg, a Canadian man sentenced to death in China for trafficking 222 kilograms of methamphetamine. “We’ve spoken with China’s ambassador to Canada and requested clemency. Canada’s position when it comes to the death penalty is consistent and very longstanding. We believe it is inhumane and inappropriate.”

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry warned its citizens about travel to Canada and issued a stern rebuke to Mr. Trudeau, telling Ottawa to “stop making such irresponsible remarks” after the Prime Minister accused Beijing of arbitrarily enforcing its laws.

China is “strongly dissatisfied” with the Canadian criticism, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. She did not mention Mr. Trudeau by name.

But, she said, “the remarks by the relevant Canadian person lack the most basic awareness of the legal system.”

The strident response comes as China’s leadership takes an increasingly assertive position in its foreign relations, while Ottawa’s attempts to hold its ground have stoked hostility with the world’s second-largest economy.

On Monday, Mr. Trudeau spoke out after a Chinese court sentenced to death Mr. Schellenberg, 36. Police in the northeastern port city of Dalian said he was part of a conspiracy to hide 222 kilograms of methamphetamine inside tires and export them to Australia.

Mr. Schellenberg had been sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was sent for retrial on more serious charges after the arrest of Ms. Meng. His lawyer said on Tuesday he will appeal.

“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 as it is in this case facing a Canadian,” Mr. Trudeau said. Soon after, the Canadian government issued a travel warning that “Chinese authorities apply, sometimes arbitrarily, the death penalty for both violent and non-violent crimes.”

But China responded on Tuesday with a travel warning, saying a Chinese citizen has recently been “arbitrarily detained by law enforcement authorities because of a request by a third country.” The alert cautions travellers “to fully assess the risks of travelling to Canada.”

Ms. Hua, meanwhile, suggested Ottawa remind its citizens “never to come to China to commit serious crimes like drug smuggling. Because there will definitely be severe consequences.”

She likened the travel alert to “a thief crying. Because it is Canada, not China, that has arbitrarily detained a foreign citizen without legal basis.” Come to China, she urged, to “see how friendly and open Chinese people are.“

Ms. Freeland, meanwhile, sought to bring a human face to Mr. Schellenberg, who has also been convicted in Canada for drug smuggling. She said she spoke with Mr. Schellenberg’s father in “a very emotional conversation.”

“It’s important for us to remember we are talking about a human being, a person,” she said, adding: “I’d like to say to him and the family that we really understand how difficult the situation is.”

- With a report from Adrian Morrow in Washington

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