A Canadian man charged with drug smuggling in China four years ago will appear in court this weekend, Chinese state media announced Thursday, amid already strained relations between the two countries following the Vancouver arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou earlier this month.
The article from the Global Times, a stridently nationalist media outlet owned by China’s Communist Party, said Robert Lloyd Schellenberg will be “put on trial” by the Liaoning Provincial High People’s Court in northeastern China Saturday afternoon. The article also referenced the detention of two Canadians in China – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – on Dec. 10, just days after China promised retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Ms. Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer. (Ms. Meng is out on bail awaiting an extradition hearing and the Chinese have accused Canadian authorities of “kidnapping” her at the behest of the U.S. government.)
However, Canadian officials played down Mr. Schellenberg’s court appearance, saying they have been dealing with his case for years.
“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 in Liaoning, China. We will continue to provide consular services to them and their family,” Global Affairs Canada spokesman Richard Walker said in a statement Thursday.
“Due to the provisions under the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.”
A senior Canadian government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the consular case, said Mr. Schellenberg has been detained in China since late 2014. His trial started in 2016 and he was sentenced earlier this year, according to the official.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Ottawa should not let Chinese officials off the hook in Mr. Schellenberg’s case.
“Once a country uses its justice system for political ends, the entire system is tainted with the suspicion of unfairness, if not at the time of arrest, then in the sentencing or subsequent detention conditions,” Mr. Mulroney said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
“While Canadian officials are probably trying to prevent an already complicated story from spinning out of control, they should be careful not to go too far in exonerating Chinese officials, whose overheated rhetoric and irresponsible behaviour have generated confusion and concern.”
The Global Times article said Chinese criminal law calls for a minimum prison sentence of at least 15 years for drug trafficking, with possibility of life imprisonment or the death penalty. The article also points to the case of Akmal Shaikh, a British man who was executed in 2009 for smuggling four kilograms of heroin into China.
China commonly takes extreme measures to keep the international media out of its courts, sometimes using plainclothes officers to rough up those attempting to enter, other times physically removing seats from courtrooms – and filling remaining spaces with unknown people – to ensure there is no place for reporters to sit.
But for Mr. Schellenberg’s case, authorities have not only opened their court to foreign media, they have invited some international news organizations to attend, a highly unusual move.
The Global Times, an English-language publication of the official People’s Daily, has played an influential role in the recent escalation of tensions between Canada and China. Editor Hu Xijin posted a video Dec. 12 warning that China will take retaliatory measures if Ms. Meng wasn’t freed.
“I personally believe that if Canada extradites Meng to the U.S., China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian,” Mr. Hu said in the video.
Canada apprehended Ms. Meng on Dec. 1 when she was changing planes in Vancouver, in response to a request from the United States under an extradition treaty. She is accused of misleading multinational banks about Huawei’s control of a company operating in Iran, putting the banks at risk of violating U.S. sanctions and incurring penalties, according to court documents.
Days later, Mr. Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who now works as an analyst for the International Crisis Group, and Mr. Spavor, a Canadian entrepreneur in China, were detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security.”
In a strongly worded statement last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called for the “immediate release” of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
“We are deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of two Canadians earlier this month and call for their immediate release,” Ms. Freeland said on Dec. 21.
Key allies including the United States, Britain and the European Union have also spoken in support of Canada and the detained Canadians.
With files from Nathan VanderKlippe