Canadian facing possible death penalty over drug smuggling in China could be pawn Huawei dispute: experts

Canadian facing possible death penalty over drug smuggling in China could be pawn Huawei dispute: experts
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Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg has been staring down drug-smuggling charges in China for “several years,” according to Global Affairs officials.

But until this week, he did so in relative obscurity. Then government-linked Chinese media suddenly brought the case to light — and with it the spectre of a potential death sentence.

The eruption of publicity around Schellenberg’s appeal hearing this Saturday raises questions about whether he might now be a pawn in the much bigger legal battle over Canada’s arrest of a Huawei tech-company executive.

If that’s the case, the Canadian’s life could hang in the balance.

“One of the punishments that is applied for such charges is the death penalty, and China executes more people than any other country in the world,” says Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia professor of global politics. “My worry is that he may be more likely to be sentenced to death than would have been the case before the current breakdown in relations between Canada and China.”

Byers said he hopes that China actually uses the case as a means to “dial down” the temperature around Canada’s arrest of Huawei vice-president Meng Wanzhou, and ensure that Schellenberg is not executed if found guilty.

Police arrested Wanzhou in Vancouver at the behest of American authorities, who allege she was involved in a scheme to have Huawei circumvent U.S. sanctions against Iran.

It would not be surprising if he gets a harsh sentence

Little at this point is known about the latest Canadian detainee, or the exact nature of his alleged crime, with Canadian officials saying that privacy rules prevent it from divulging anything about his background.

“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,” said spokesman Robert Walker. “We will continue to provide consular services to them and their family.”

But on Wednesday, the website — run by the government of Liaoning province in northeastern China — reported that Dalian city’s intermediate court will hear an appeal in Schellenberg’s case Saturday afternoon.

A police officer stands outside a prison in Dalian in China’s Liaoning Province. Kyodo News, Masao Mizuno/AP

Referring to him as “another Canadian accused,” it said he is charged with smuggling a quantity of drugs so “huge” it would startle the public when made public.

One must “really admire the courage of this Canadian man to actually dare to smuggle drugs in China,” said the article. “We must know that Chinese criminal law has no sympathy for drug crimes.”

The Global Times, a branch of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, picked up the story and noted that punishment under Chinese law for smuggling a kilogram or more of heroin or methamphetamine ranged from 15 years to execution. And an opinion piece on the case by the outlet Thursday applauded the Chinese courts for taking a tough stance on drug offences.

“China has not abolished the death penalty based on its own history and current conditions,” said the piece. “Chinese courts … won’t give the wrongdoer a way out simply because the criminal is a foreigner.”

Donald Clarke, a professor specializing in Chinese law at George Washington University Law School, said there’s nothing unusual about foreigners facing drug charges in China, and he does not know what might be happening behind the scenes.

But it’s possible Schellenberg’s case is now tangled up in the Huawei dispute.

“Is it going to be affected by the current situation? That would not be surprising,” said Clarke, a Toronto native. “It would not be surprising if he gets a harsh sentence, but it may be the amount in question already justifies a death sentence (under Chinese law).”

Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist and China expert, also said that hundreds of Canadians and other foreigners are charged with crimes in China yearly, and it’s impossible to say whether Schellenberg’s case is being tied to the Huawei affair. But she said that possibility can’t be ruled out.

“It could be … the authorities are airing this in the public as a show of another potential case that is in their hands.”

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