A court in the Chinese port city of Dalian sentenced a Canadian man convicted of drug trafficking to the death penalty Monday, the latest development in an intensifying diplomatic spat between Beijing and Ottawa that has already resulted in the arrest of two Canadians on charges of “endangering national security.”
Robert Lloyd Schellenberg received the death sentence following a one-day retrial ordered weeks after Meng Wanzhou—the chief financial officer for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei—was arrested Dec. 1 in Vancouver at the United States’ request. Washington alleged that Meng violated sanctions on Iran and is seeking her extradition to the U.S.
Schellenberg was initially detained by Chinese authorities in 2014 and charged with smuggling methamphetamine in China, but it took until last November for him to be found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Schellenberg appealed the sentence to the Liaoning High People’s Court. Prosecutors countered by arguing that the initial verdict had been too lenient. According to the South China Morning Post, the appellate court heard the appeal Dec. 29 and ordered a retrial in the lower court. On Monday, the lower court sided with prosecutors, who presented new evidence implicating Schellenberg in a failed drug-smuggling operation that sought to ship nearly 500 pounds of methamphetamine—packed in pellets that were to be stuffed in tires—from Dalian to Australia.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters in Ottawa later that day and suggested the tougher sentence was politically motivated, expressing “extreme concern” over China’s decision to “arbitrarily apply a death penalty.” He also said the Canadian government would try to intercede in the case.
In addition to the conspicuous timing of Schellenberg’s retrial, Beijing invited foreign media to his appeal hearing, a rare move suggesting—as The Washington Post notes—that the government wanted to use the case to exert pressure on Ottawa to free Meng. The retrial lasted just 12 hours, including breaks, before adjourning for another hour, after which the judge sentenced Schellenberg to death.
China has a zero-tolerance drug policy and has executed foreign nationals convicted of trafficking before, including a Japanese national in 2014 and a Filipino in 2013. However, experts have expressed skepticism regarding the handling of Schellenberg’s appeal. The New York Times spoke with Donald Clarke, an authority on Chinese law at George Washington University, who highlighted the disparity between Schellenberg’s first trial, which lasted two and a half years, and his retrial, which lasted less than a day
“We should draw the conclusion that the Chinese government very obviously wants us to draw: this is a political case,” Clarke told the Times.
Bill Bishop, the prominent China watcher and author of the Sinocism newsletter, claimed in a tweet that he’d been informed prior to the announcement of Schellenberger’s retrial “that the authorities were planning to sentence a canadian drug trafficker to death…this whole thing was fixed to interfere in Canada’s internal judicial process and threaten Canada to get Meng back.”
For its part, Beijing has defended the legitimacy of Schellenberger’s retrial and sentence, and a Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with Trudeau’s remarks calling them into question. The countries imposed travel warnings on each other this week.
One of Schellenberg’s lawyers said Tuesday that he will appeal the death sentence, a process that could take months. According to the Post, “after an appeals judge makes a ruling, China’s highest court would still need to make a final decision before Schellenberg is put to death.” Schellenberg denied playing a part in the drug-smuggling operation, and told the court that he was a tourist to China who was “framed by criminals.”\Here’s a rundown of other China news from the past week:
Poland arrests Huawei employee, alleges espionage: Polish officials announced Friday that authorities had arrested a Huawei employee and a former Polish security official on charges of spying. Wang Weijing, sales director for Huawei’s Polish division, was arrested Jan. 8 alongside Piotr Durbajlo, who was employed by the French telecommunications company Orange. Polish officials said the two men will be held for three months while the investigation continues.
Details of the investigation are still unclear. Huawei said in a statement Saturday that Wang had been fired “because the incident in question has brought Huawei into disrepute.” It also said that Wang’s “alleged actions have no relation to the company.” Poland’s Ministry for Special Services said the two men were “conducting spying activities against Poland,” adding that there was proof that Wang had cooperated with Chinese secret services. The ministry’s spokesperson also told the Financial Times that the investigation was not “aimed at any company, but at the two detained individuals.”
Huawei has already been banned from 5G infrastructure projects in several countries for national security reasons.
Senior official under investigation: Zhao Zhengyong became the first senior official to become ensnared this year in President Xi Jinping’s notorious anti-corruption campaign. The former governor and Communist Party chief of northwest Shaanxi province is under investigation for “serious violations in law and discipline,” according to a statement released Monday by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Communist Party’s watchdog against graft and political disloyalty.
Another vaccine scandal: The government of Jinhu county in Jiangsu province announced Friday that it is investigating complaints that at least 145 children between the ages of 3 months and 4 years received expired polio vaccines. According to the Global Times, a state-run tabloid, the vaccine was administered Jan. 7 despite an expiration date of Dec. 11. The deputy head of Jinhu county and other senior local officials are now under investigation, and 17 people have already been punished.
Hundreds of furious parents protested outside the county government office, some scuffling with police and others chanting “Beat him, beat him,” while surrounding the party secretary of Jinhu. Police announced that three people were arrested.
A mother told The New York Times, “None of us wanted to beat the party secretary… All we wanted was an explanation from him.” She said that local police had warned her not to accept interviews on the subject, “especially from foreign media,” and added that she doesn’t “dare to trust China’s vaccines anymore.”
The latest vaccine scandal recalls an even worse incident last summer, when hundreds of thousands of children across China received faulty vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. The government levied a record fine of $1.3 billion against vaccine-maker Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology Company and pledged to clean up the industry.
Beijing ramps up lobbying efforts on Xinjiang camps: The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the Chinese government has stepped up its lobbying efforts to stifle foreign criticism of its mass detention of Uighur Muslims in internment camps in the Xinjiang autonomous region. Chinese diplomats have petitioned several governments to keep them from attacking Beijing’s Xinjiang policies at the United Nations. Diplomats described the public relations offensive to the Journal as “a pre-emptive campaign to pressure governments against requesting a special session of the Human Rights Council to discuss Xinjiang.”
Beijing has also held choreographed visits to the region—including tours of the camps—for selected foreign diplomats and media outlets, including Reuters. However, China has generally rebuffed requests from Western diplomats for similar tours. Instead, Beijing has picked out mostly Muslim-majority nations that maintain friendly ties with China for the visits, in hopes of easing criticism that has led to protests against the government’s repression of Islam. One diplomat familiar with the tour told the Journal that it “raised more questions than it answered.”