‘Really, really shocked’: Canadian’s drug-smuggling retrial in China starting just two weeks after appeal

‘Really, really shocked’: Canadian’s drug-smuggling retrial in China starting just two weeks after appeal
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When Canadian Robert Schellenberg’s drawn-out drug-smuggling case was suddenly brought to the fore by Chinese media last month, alarm bells went off. When days later an appeal court ordered a retrial that could result in the death penalty, they sounded louder.

Now that second trial has been set for this Monday, barely two weeks after Schellenberg’s appeal hearing and its surprise outcome.

The rapid-fire scheduling is sparking more concerns that the Abbotsford, B.C., native has become the latest bargaining chip in China’s bitter diplomatic tussle with Canada — leaving his life literally hanging in the balance.

Chinese officials have been pushing Canada hard to release Meng Wanzhou, a top executive with technology giant Huawei, after her arrest in Vancouver on an extradition request by the U.S.

It seems increasingly likely they resurrected Schellenberg’s case to add to the pressure, says Donald Clarke, a professor and expert on the Chinese legal system at George Washington University.

“Sending the case back for retrial gives China the opportunity to threaten death and to drag out that threat for as long as necessary,” Clarke wrote Friday . If that’s its intention, “China has moved from merely detaining Canadians as hostages to actually threatening — subtly, to be sure — to kill a Canadian who would otherwise not have been executed if it does not get what it wants.”

The short lag between the appeal and trial is also “utterly inadequate” to prepare a defence, he added.

“Yesterday’s news (about the trial date) just really, really shocked everyone,” said Lauri Nelson-Jones, Schellenberg’s aunt and a family spokeswoman. “We’re all pretty worked up right now about this. It’s not looking good.”

The accelerated retrial adds to the strain on the prisoner’s parents, who have not been allowed any kind of direct contact with their son since his arrest in 2014, she said.

China earlier detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor on national-security allegations, in what experts believe was a tit-for-tat response to Meng’s Dec. 1 arrest.

I don’t see any good outcome to this

Schellenberg’s case is different. It had been quietly working its way through the Chinese courts for years, and last November he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, allegedly for being part of a plan to smuggle 220 kilograms of methamphetamines to Australia. (The Canadian says he was framed.) But suddenly last month, Chinese media reported that he was about to have an appeal hearing, and government officials took the unusual step of inviting foreign press to attend.

Schellenberg filed the appeal himself, but prosecutors convinced the court — which deliberated for just 20 minutes — to order a retrial on more serious charges that allow for capital punishment, according to a Wall Street Journal account of the hearing.

Schellenberg seems an unlikely pawn in such international intrigue. A former high-school football player and all-round athlete who liked to ski and hit the gym, he worked most recently in the Alberta oil fields, said Nelson-Jones.

“Quiet, but funny. He was always a quieter one among the nieces and nephews,” the aunt said. “He’s just a really chill, easy-going, kind of go-with-the-flow guy.”

She said her nephew had visited Thailand once, loved it, then returned a few months before his 2014 arrest. He notified his parents that he was travelling from there to China and the next they heard of him was a call from Global Affairs Canada a month later to say he had been detained.

China has moved from merely detaining Canadians as hostages to actually threatening — subtly, to be sure — to kill a Canadian

The criminal courts often work independently and that may have been the case for Schellenberg until recently, said John Kamm of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for “at-risk” prisoners in China. But in politically sensitive cases — such as those involving dissidents or persecuted minorities — the “sentencing committees” work closely with high-up Communist party officials, he said.

Schellenberg, who instigated the fateful appeal hearing, is “truly unlucky” if he’s now getting the latter treatment, said Kamm. Diplomats and other Canadians with close ties to Beijing should immediately warn the Chinese that a death sentence would severely undermine relations, and hope for a life sentence or a postponed judgment instead, he said.

“I don’t see any good outcome to this,” Kamm said. “There are only terrible outcomes and less-than-terrible outcomes.”

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