A Chinese court has sentenced to death a Canadian man, calling him a “core member” of an organized international drug-trafficking conspiracy.
The actions of Robert Schellenberg brought an “extremely large” negative impact for China, the court in Dalian said Monday, issuing its verdict barely an hour after the trial concluded. The stunningly quick decision stands to heighten tensions between China and Canada, where critics say Mr. Schellenberg’s case has become political following the December arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of U.S. authorities.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strongly deplored China’s decision to impose the death penalty, accusing China of acting arbitrarily and said the Canadian government will do all it can to convince Beijing not to execute Mr. Schellenberg.
“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,” he told a news conference after unveiling a mini-cabinet shuffle.
The Prime Minister said his government strengthened a policy that requires Ottawa to “always intercede on behalf of Canadians facing the death penalty anywhere in the world.”
Late Monday, the Canadian government updated its travel advisory to China, warning about the risk of arbitrary arrests.
“We encourage Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws,” Global Affairs said in announcing the new travel advisory.
Chinese police arrested Mr. Schellenberg while he was on board an airplane in Guangzhou, on Dec. 3, 2014. Nearly four years later, a court sentenced him to 15 years in prison as an accomplice to drug smuggling. But on Dec. 29, he was ordered to face retrial, after prosecutors cited the emergence of new evidence, saying he was in fact involved in organized international drug trafficking, a crime whose maximum sentence is execution.
On Monday, the court rejected the defence by Mr. Schellenberg, who called the accusations against him ”ridiculous,” as he sought to rebuff new evidence brought against him during a proceeding in which he and his lawyers were frequently interrupted by a prosecutor and the chief judge.
Mr. Schellenberg, 36, showed little reaction to the decision, standing still and quietly acknowledging the verdict against him.
In the single-day trial, Mr. Schellenberg had described himself as a tourist caught up in a conspiracy to traffic drugs to Australia by a man he thought was his translator.
“I am not a drug smuggler. I am not a drug user. I am a normal person,” he said. “I am innocent.”
But that translator, Xu Qing, appeared in court as a witness, saying he himself was a pawn – an interpreter inadvertently embroiled in a plan by Mr. Schellenberg and others to pack 222 kilograms of methamphetamine into bags filled with plastic granules and hide them inside tires.
The court adopted the arguments made by prosecutors, who used phone and banking records to paint Mr. Schellenberg as part of a criminal conspiracy to move large sums of drugs. The court did not provide a two-year reprieve, which can be used to avoid execution through good conduct. Mr. Schellenberg will appeal the sentence, his lawyer said.
Mr. Schellenberg has been convicted of drug-related offences before.
In April, 2012, he was sentenced by a B.C. Supreme Court judge to 16 months and 12 days in prison after pleading guilty to possessing cocaine and heroin for the purposes of trafficking. He had also pleaded guilty to simple possession of cannabis and methamphetamine.
In his sentencing, Justice Niell Brown acknowledged that Mr. Schellenberg struggled with addiction, but said that his future is in his hands.
"As your counsel has noted, drug trafficking is a very serious matter," Justice Brown told Mr. Schellenberg, then 29. "It is a scourge in our province and our country. Your country deserves much better from you.
“You are in one of the best places in the whole world to live. You are not caught up in Libya or Syria; I do not have any evidence of any abuse in your childhood, and I accept that you have your own struggles to deal with, but you have to confront those.
“After all, it’s not as if you are 18, and having to storm Juno Beach. Your basis is to overcome your addiction and reform your life. I hope this is the last time you appear in court.”
Mr. Schellenberg's drug offences date back to 2003, when he was convicted of possession and received a six-month conditional sentence and six months' probation, according to court documents.
On Monday, Mr. Schellenberg’s family asked Canadians to pray for his safe return. “The Schellenberg family cares deeply about our Robert, who is being held under very difficult circumstances in China,” the family said in a statement.
At least two Canadian citizens were executed in China for drug crimes during the time Guy Saint-Jacques was ambassador in Beijing. Chinese officials proceeded with the death penalty even after receiving personal pleas to President Xi Jinping from then-prime minister Stephen Harper. Governor-general David Johnston had also sought to intervene. China’s response was that “drug trafficking is a very serious crime in China and we have to apply our laws to everyone,” Mr. Saint-Jacques recalled.
Even so, “the unusual circumstances of this retrial and death sentence will reinforce suspicions in Ottawa that China is using the lives and liberty of Canadian citizens to strong-arm the Canadian government,” said Roland Paris, a former foreign-policy adviser to the Trudeau government who is now professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa.
The court said Mr. Schellenberg’s conduct in Dalian, where the methamphetamine was stored in a warehouse, was not typical of a tourist. Dalian is not a typical destination for first-time travellers to China. But Mr. Schellenberg said he spent a week in Dalian visiting shopping malls, restaurants and nightclubs before being taken to a port warehouse and then to hardware stores, where he and Mr. Xu shopped for scissors, tape, flashlights and gloves – items the court said were intended as tools for repackaging drugs into tires.
On Monday, prosecutors revealed some of their new evidence against Mr. Schellenberg in a new indictment, which relied on the digital records to show, prosecutors said, his involvement in organizing and inspecting the drug shipment to Australia.
Among those pieces of evidence were money transfers between people found guilty of drug crimes elsewhere in China. Prosecutors also introduced phone records that showed a single call between Mr. Schellenberg’s phone and a number they said belonged to Mai Qingxiang, a Chinese man who has been sentenced to death, with a two-year reprieve, on drug charges.
Mr. Schellenberg said he had not heard Mr. Mai’s name until he read it in an indictment, while his lawyers disputed Mr. Mai’s ownership of the phone in question.
But, prosecutors argued, the records show Mr. Schellenberg was a “principal criminal” in an international trafficking conspiracy. They relied heavily on testimony from Mr. Xu, who said Mr. Schellenberg had ordered him to do a series of tasks related to the methamphetamine smuggling, including buying tools, tires and a container and visiting a warehouse where the drugs were stored.
Mr. Schellenberg’s response: Mr. Xu paid for each of those things, brought him to the warehouse to frame him and used the Canadian man’s phone to call others to bolster that proof.
The financial and telephone records used as evidence “have nothing to do” with Mr. Schellenberg, his lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, argued – and in fact, he said, Mr. Schellenberg had not received a penny of benefit from his supposed participation in a drug-trafficking operation.
Mr. Zhang allowed that there could be suspicion of Mr. Schellenberg’s involvement. But a court should convict solely on evidence, he said, asking the judges to consider deportation, particularly in light of the international attention directed at the case.
One report in state media said Mr. Schellenberg had also “requested no Canadian media be allowed in the court, and it seems he does not want people from his home country to hear about the case.”
The Globe and Mail was allowed into a separate courtroom three kilometres away, where a live video stream broadcast the court proceedings. Several Japanese reporters were in the same room. Four officials from the Canadian embassy attended the trial.
The quick verdict against Mr. Schellenberg “will reflect badly on the criminal-justice system in China,” said Sida Liu, an expert on Chinese law and criminal justice at the University of Toronto. But, he said, while a retrial death sentence verdict is uncommon, other aspects of the trial were not.
Prior to Monday, Canada had not updated its China travel advisory since October, when it warned Canadians to “exercise a high degree of caution” because of “isolated acts of violence, including bombings and protests.” It also cautioned that Chinese authorities may detain foreigners for up to six months without formally arresting them for behaviour and activities that Beijing considers a danger to national security.
Early in January, the United States updated its advisory, cautioning American citizens they could face arbitrary arrest amid heightened diplomatic tensions over the U.S. request that Canada extradite Ms. Meng on allegations of possible fraud relating to U.S. sanctions against Iran.
With reports from Alexandra Li, Robert Fife, Andrea Woo and Reuters