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UPDATE: China acting 'arbitrarily' in imposing drug case death sentence: Trudeau

Robert Lloyd Schellenberg is shown in a family handout photo provided by his aunt Lauri Nelson-Jones. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he's very concerned to see China "acting arbitrarily" by applying the death penalty to Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted of drug trafficking.
January 14, 2019 - 11:22 AM

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he's very concerned to see China "acting arbitrarily" by applying the death penalty to a Canadian convicted of drug trafficking.

Canada will do all it can to intervene on Robert Lloyd Schellenberg's behalf and Beijing's actions should be worrisome for "all our international friends and allies," Trudeau said Monday.

The development further strained already tense relations between Canada and China over the treatment of each other's citizens by their respective justice systems.

A court in Dalian in northeastern Liaoning province announced Monday evening that it had given Schellenberg the death penalty after reconsidering his case.

Schellenberg was detained in 2014 and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016 on charges of being an accessory to drug smuggling.

His new sentence comes after China detained two Canadians on national security grounds in December in apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest of a Chinese technology executive.

Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States, angering Beijing.

The Chinese media began publicizing Schellenberg's case after Canada detained Meng, who faces extradition to the U.S. on fraud charges.

Fifty people, including Canadian diplomats and foreign and domestic media, attended Monday's trial, the court said in an online statement.

Canada's federal government intercedes on behalf of any Canadian facing execution abroad, Trudeau said in Ottawa.

"This is very much a concern to see that China is acting arbitrarily and applying the death penalty to a Canadian," he said, adding the government "will continue to talk to our allies and to China about this."

Schellenberg's aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, said the family is awaiting any news regarding an appeal.

"All I can really say at this moment is, it is our worst case fear confirmed. Our thoughts are with Robert at this time," she said in an email to The Canadian Press. "It is rather unimaginable what he must be feeling and thinking. It is a horrific, unfortunate, heartbreaking situation."

Schellenberg's lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said his client has 10 days to contest the latest sentence.

Zhang said he argued in the one-day trial Monday that there was insufficient evidence to prove Schellenberg's involvement in the drug-smuggling operation, nor had prosecutors introduced new evidence to justify a heavier sentence.

"This is a very unique case," Zhang told The Associated Press. He added the swiftness of the proceedings — with a retrial held so soon after it was ordered — was unusual, but he declined to comment on whether it was related to Meng's arrest

Schellenberg had been prepared for a more severe punishment so he maintained a calm demeanour in court, Zhang said.

The court said it found that Schellenberg was involved in an international drug-smuggling operation and was recruited to help smuggle more than 222 kilograms of methamphetamine from a warehouse in Dalian city to Australia.

A Chinese person convicted of involvement in the same operation received a suspended death sentence earlier.

The friction between Canada and China has been steadily increasing since Canadian authorities took Meng into custody in Vancouver and Chinese officials subsequently arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur, for allegedly endangering national security.

The Opposition Conservatives have been calling on Trudeau to directly address the controversy by telephoning Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The prime minister needs to seize himself with this troubling and deepening diplomatic dispute, Conservative foreign-affairs critic Erin O'Toole tweeted Monday.

In 2009, China executed a Briton, Akmal Shaikh, on charges of smuggling heroin despite his supporters' protest that he was mentally ill.

The episode was terribly damaging to relations between the United Kingdom and China, said Ben Rowswell, a former diplomat and current president of the Canadian International Council, a non-partisan think-tank.

He said Canadians are divided as to whether China should be seen primarily as a partner or as a threat. "My concern is that if a Canadian is executed in China, it will tip the balance in favour of the latter, and it will take years and years for the Canada-China relationship to recover."

The collective power of like-minded liberal democracies could help Canada assert its position in an increasingly splintered world, Rowswell added.

"On that, I think Canada's in relatively good position because we traditionally have been excellent at banding together and creating meaningful alliances and institutions with a large number of very powerful countries."

— With files from Alison Auld and The Associated Press

News from © The Canadian Press, 2019
The Canadian Press

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