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Neither Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, seen here in Ottawa on Jan. 11, 2020, nor Ambassador Dominic Barton have mentioned Fan Wei, who like Canadian Robert Schellenberg was sentenced to death in China on drug charges last year at the height of Beijing’s rage over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou.

DAVE CHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Some of the most senior figures in Canada’s foreign affairs establishment have publicly distanced themselves from a Canadian man sentenced to death in China months after the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver created new friction between the two countries.

In speeches and public testimony this year, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Ambassador Dominic Barton have expressed concern for Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – who on Thursday will mark 500 days in Chinese custody – as well as Robert Schellenberg, who was sentenced to death last year on drug-related charges.

But neither the ambassador nor the minister have mentioned Fan Wei, who like Mr. Schellenberg was sentenced to death on drug charges last year at the height of Beijing’s rage over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer.

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The omission was deliberate. Canadian officials have concluded that Mr. Fan’s case, though it appeared in the midst of the tensions with China, is different. Unlike the other three men, Mr. Fan is not mentioned as a “hot issue” in an associate deputy minister of foreign affairs transition book posted online. Mr. Barton has personally visited the other three but not Mr. Fan, a Canadian born in China who holds Hong Kong identification documents.

“Although we are extremely concerned by the death sentence in this case, we have not had an indication that his sentence was arbitrary, unlike in the case of Schellenberg,” said a person with knowledge of the situation. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Officials use the term “arbitrary” to denote an unfair action by a foreign state or perhaps one that is politically motivated.

Mr. Fan’s case, however, bears several irregularities.

The death sentence against him was announced by state media in Guangdong province on April 30, 2019, in an unusual fashion. Reports drew attention to his Canadian citizenship, though he was among 11 people punished for their role in what Chinese authorities say was a major drug-trafficking ring, one that included four Mexicans and an American.

And the verdict had been a long time coming. Chinese authorities arrested those involved in 2012 and put them on trial in 2013. A verdict had not appeared since then, despite an international lobbying campaign by Katherine Swidan, whose son Mark Swidan is the American caught up in the case.

It was not until the dispute over Ms. Meng’s arrest that Mr. Fan was sentenced to death. The verdict was delivered in the midst of increasing pressure on Ottawa from Beijing, which has demanded the release of Ms. Meng. That same week in 2019, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said China had begun blocking imports of Canadian pork.

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This January, a one-day appeal hearing for Mr. Fan suddenly took place on the Sunday before a week-long hearing for Ms. Meng in Vancouver – timing that suggests co-ordination of Mr. Fan’s case with that of Ms. Meng.

Little is known about Mr. Fan. His family has not spoken publicly, and the verdict has not been posted to a Chinese online judgments database. The Globe spoke with three lawyers who participated in the broader drug case, including one who represented Mr. Fan. Each of them declined to comment. One blocked phone calls from a Globe reporter after saying the case was sensitive and that his calls were being listened to.

In Canada, meanwhile, Mr. Fan has received little of the public support devoted even to Mr. Schellenberg, who was previously jailed in Canada on drug charges before being arrested in China, jailed for 15 years and then, in a retrial, sentenced to death. On Feb. 5, Mr. Barton told the parliamentary special committee on Canada-China relations “that the utmost priority of my goal and objectives is to work for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and to seek clemency for Robert Schellenberg.” He added: “I am unbelievably inspired by their resilience. Each of these three people is incredible, as a human and as an individual.”

On Feb. 21, Mr. Champagne delivered an important policy address in Montreal in which he said “our top priority” is to secure the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, adding, “We are also working to obtain clemency for Robert Schellenberg, sentenced to death by China.”

In a statement, Adam Austen, a spokesman for Mr. Champagne, said: “We have closely followed Mr. Fan’s case since he was first detained in 2012 and have conducted consular visits. Canadian officials were present at his sentencing in April of 2019 and we continue to provide consular assistance to Mr. Fan and his family.” He added: “We call unequivocally for clemency in his case.”

Loudly demanding redress from China may not always be the right approach, said Gordon Houlden, a former diplomat who is now director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. “My gut tells me that both Ottawa and Beijing want to find a way to de-escalate the current impasse,” he said. And if that’s the case, “perhaps there will be an incentive on the Chinese side to commute the Fan case to life imprisonment. This would be far better than the day-to-day risk of execution.”

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But others questioned the Canadian approach to Mr. Fan.

“Are all Canadians equal in our advocating for them for clemency or are they not?” asked Leona Alleslev, the Conservative foreign-affairs critic.

Human-rights advocates have called on Ottawa to more assertively raise other cases of Canadians imprisoned in China, including Huseyin Celil and Sun Qian.

“Dual nationals, who may have been born in China before coming to Canada, absolutely have the same urgent need for Canadian protection as do Canadian citizens who do not have Chinese roots,” said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.

“Canada’s commitment to all of these cases must be the same.”

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