A Canadian man sentenced to death in China for drug trafficking protested his innocence Thursday during a four-hour appeal hearing that ended without a verdict, in the midst of a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Ottawa that has exacted a heavy human and economic toll.
It is not uncommon for Chinese courts to wait to render a decision. But the delayed judgment against Robert Schellenberg echoed the outcome of a separate set of proceedings 8,300 kilometres away in Vancouver, where hours earlier the B.C. Supreme Court agreed to delay an extradition hearing for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada in December.
Observers said the lack of an immediate verdict against Mr. Schellenberg, who in January was found guilty of conspiring to traffic 222 kilograms of methamphetamine, suggested a desire by China to avoid further deepening a rift with Canada at the moment.
Beijing has reacted with fury to the arrest of Ms. Meng, demanding her release as relations with Ottawa plunged into their worst state in decades. In the past five months, Chinese authorities have detained two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both accused of espionage-related offences – and sentenced another two to death: Mr. Schellenberg and Fan Wei, who was also found guilty last week of drug crimes.
Canadian agricultural exports have faced a series of new obstacles getting their product into China, with several companies barred from sending canola and pork, while Beijing has frozen communication with Ottawa, ignoring requests to speak with Canadian federal ministers.
The Thursday morning hearing for Mr. Schellenberg, his final opportunity for a formal appeal, began less than five hours after the conclusion of Ms. Meng’s court appearance.
Mr. Schellenberg “made a very clear and complete self-defence,” his lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said. The Canadian man has been found guilty of working with others in the northeastern city of Dalian to pack drugs into tires for shipment to Australia. In court Thursday, he said ”he came to Dalian as a tourist and didn’t commit any drug-trafficking crime,” Mr. Zhang said.
But the proceedings differed markedly from two earlier court appearances, in which Chinese authorities took the unusual step of inviting foreign media to attend as a judge first ordered a retrial, then increased Mr. Schellenberg’s sentence from 15 years in prison to execution – a decision rendered little more than an hour after the single-day retrial concluded.
On Thursday, a court worker, citing a lack of seats in the courtroom, said foreign journalists could sit in a separate waiting room and wait for a statement to be posted to the court website. At the conclusion of the hearing, a large group of people left the courthouse together and boarded two waiting buses. None would disclose their identities.
Court authorities allowed Canadian embassy officials to attend, but refused entry to the hearing for diplomats from nine other countries: the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Britain and the United States.
A brief statement posted to the Liaoning High People’s Court early Thursday afternoon said the hearing had been adjourned, and the court will “select a day or time to deliver the sentence.“
The delayed decision “means the court needs longer to go through the arguments and evidence raised by both sides, including from Schellenberg. That’s how it should be perceived,” Mr. Zhang said.
Chinese law provides no fixed deadline for a court to render a verdict. In capital-punishment cases, the Supreme People’s Court must first conduct a review, a process that does not involve an open hearing but which does allow a defendant and legal counsel to present arguments.
Canadian diplomats who attended the trial declined comment.
“Canada remains extremely concerned that China has chosen to apply the death penalty, a cruel and inhumane punishment,” Global Affairs Canada spokesman Guillaume Bérubé said in a statement. “Canada has requested, and will continue to seek, clemency for Mr. Schellenberg.”
But the lower-profile appeal hearing Thursday suggests China is “not escalating” its dispute with Canada at the moment, said Phil Calvert, a former Canadian diplomat who is now a senior fellow with the China Institute of the University of Alberta.
Chinese authorities nonetheless hold “the power to announce a verdict at any time,” he said. “It’s kind of like a Sword of Damocles hanging over Schellenberg, and hanging over the relationship.”
On Thursday, however, there was at least one small sign that the high-level political dispute has done little to change perceptions of Canada among everyday Chinese.
Across the street from the court, a Canadian flag stood on display inside an immigration firm that helps locals move to Canada. Vancouver is the most popular destination, the owner said. And the dispute between Beijing and Ottawa has done nothing to diminish interest.
There has been, he said, “no difference.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li