Canadian sentenced to death in China for drug smuggling will appeal: lawyer

Canadian sentenced to death in China for drug smuggling will appeal: lawyer
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HONG KONG — A Canadian man sentenced to death in China for drug smuggling intends to appeal, one of his lawyers said Wednesday, as a diplomatic rift between Canada and China deepened and information emerged about the man’s past drug convictions.

The man, Robert Schellenberg, 36, was tried, convicted and sentenced Monday in what one of his attorneys called a stunningly swift outcome. The hearing in Dalian, a port city in northeastern China, was a retrial ordered by an appeals court last month, after Beijing angrily denounced Canada for arresting a Chinese tech executive at the request of the United States.

Zhang Dongshuo, one of Schellenberg’s two defense attorneys, said his client was relatively calm when they met Tuesday, despite the death sentence and the possibility that a geopolitical conflict could decide his fate. Schellenberg said during that meeting that he would appeal, Zhang said by telephone.

“His main point is that he is innocent, and he didn’t do what he’s been accused of doing,” Zhang said.

He said he had warned Schellenberg last week that the retrial might result in a harsher punishment than the 15-year sentence he originally received, and that he could even be sentenced to death. Still, Zhang said he was astonished by the swiftness of the sentencing Monday.

“This really was too fast,” Zhang said.

“Under Chinese law, death sentences should be handled very carefully,” he said. “Generally, they must be arrived at after careful consideration, assessment and discussion. For a court to announce a death sentence just an hour after the trial really is very, very rare.”

Schellenberg can formally lodge his appeal within 10 days of receiving a written copy of the court verdict. He had yet to receive one when Zhang saw him Tuesday.

Zhang said it was too early to lay out all the potential grounds for appeal, but he said prosecutors had offered no new evidence Monday that could justify a heavier penalty.

“My view is that the facts laid out by the prosecution for the retrial were not new,” Zhang said.

“Under Chinese law, the penalty of a criminal conviction can only be increased on appeal if the prosecution produces new criminal facts,” he said. “It still fell within the scope of the original criminal facts.”

His main point is that he is innocent

Canada opposes the death penalty and carried out its last execution in 1962. Its minister for foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, said Tuesday that her ministry had already asked for leniency for Schellenberg.

She told reporters Tuesday that Canada’s relationship with China was at “a complicated, a difficult moment” and that she had spoken twice with the Chinese ambassador.

“As Canadians know, we do not have the death penalty in Canada,” she said. “We believe it is inhumane and inappropriate.”

Freeland said she had also had an “emotional” conversation over the phone with Schellenberg’s father.

“It’s important for us to remember that we’re talking about a human being — about a person,” she said.

Legally, the odds are stacked against Schellenberg. Chinese courts come under Communist Party control, and successful appeals in criminal cases are rare; outright exonerations are even rarer. But an appeal may help Schellenberg extend the process while the Canadian government seeks to secure clemency.

The fate of Schellenberg, as well as two Canadians detained in China last month, now seems inescapably tied to the tense relationship between the countries — in particular, to Canada’s handling of Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese tech executive whose arrest in Vancouver early last month ignited official fury in Beijing.

Canadian Robert Schellenberg during his retrial on drug trafficking charges at a court in Dalian in China’s Liaoning province on Jan. 14, 2019. Handout via AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese government has argued that Meng’s arrest was an abuse of law, an accusation denied by Canada. But numerous law experts and former diplomats suspect China of playing politics with the law itself, to put pressure on Canada.

Less than two weeks after Meng’s arrest, two Canadians — Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman — were arrested in China on suspicion of “endangering national security,” a vague charge that can cover crimes like espionage.

Then in late December, a court in Dalian acted with uncommon speed to hear Schellenberg’s appeal against the 15-year prison sentence he had received the previous month. Schellenberg had hoped the court would reduce his sentence or overturn the conviction, but it ordered a retrial and indicated that he might deserve a heavier sentence.

Zhang, the lawyer, said Schellenberg’s criminal record in Canada had not come up during his hearings in China. At the appeal hearing and the retrial, Schellenberg said he had been in China as a tourist and unwittingly became entangled in a drug smuggling operation.

In Canada, though, Schellenberg has a history of drug trafficking dating to 2003, when he was convicted of possession of a scheduled substance for the purpose of trafficking, according to court records.

My view is that the facts laid out by the prosecution for the retrial were not new

In 2010, he was convicted of drug trafficking again and sentenced to nine months in jail. Two years later, when Schellenberg was 29, he pleaded guilty to possessing about $4,500 worth of cocaine and heroin for trafficking purposes, as well as possessing cannabis and methamphetamines.

Court records indicated that the police had found drugs in Schellenberg’s apartment, which a judge said he was using “as a distribution center,” saying he was “not at the lower rung of the dial-a-dope operations.” Schellenberg was sentenced to two years in jail, some of which he had already served while waiting for the trial.

The sentencing judge, Neill Brown of the British Columbia Supreme Court, told Schellenberg: “Your country deserves much better from you. You are in one of the best places in the whole world to live.” He urged Schellenberg to “overcome your addiction and reform your life” and told him, “I hope this is the last time you appear in court.”

Lauri Nelson-Jones, Schellenberg’s aunt, said in an earlier interview that before his arrest in China in 2014, Schellenberg had traveled around Asia, using earnings from working in the oil fields of Alberta to pay for his adventures.

After Schellenberg was sentenced to death Monday, Global Affairs Canada — the country’s foreign service — issued a revised travel advisory for Canadians considering travel to China. That warning came after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply” the death penalty.

The travel advisory recommended “a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

On Tuesday, China struck back. Its embassy in Ottawa urged Chinese citizens to “fully assess the risks of traveling to Canada,” citing the “arbitrary detention” of Meng, though it did not name her. “In the near future, exercise caution in traveling to Canada,” the notice said.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, said that the Canadian government had played down the gravity of Schellenberg’s crime, which the court said involved attempting to smuggle nearly 500 pounds of methamphetamine to Australia. Hua also brushed aside the call for clemency.

“I don’t know if the Canadian leader has seriously heeded China’s solemn stance,” Hua said at a regular news briefing. “For the Canadian leader to use ‘arbitrary’ to describe Schellenberg’s trial in China was extremely irresponsible.”

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