A Canadian man has been sentenced to death in China for drug smuggling as diplomatic tensions between the two countries escalate.
In a sudden retrial, a court in north-eastern Liaoning province said it had given Robert Lloyd Schellenberg the death penalty after rejecting his plea of innocence and convicting him of being an accessory to drug smuggling.
It gave no indication that the penalty could be commuted, but Schellenberg’s fate could become intertwined in diplomatic negotiations over China’s demand for the release of a top technology executive.
Washington wants Meng – the daughter of Huawei’s founder – extradited to face charges that she misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran. She is out on bail in Canada and awaiting a bail extradition proceeding next month.
In the meantime, China has arrested two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Meng’s arrest.
Both Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were arrested on vague national security allegations. A Canadian teacher was detained but released.
Schellenberg’s aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, said her nephew’s death sentence was “a horrific, unfortunate, heartbreaking situation”.
She added: “It is our worst case fear confirmed. It is rather unimaginable what he must be feeling and thinking.”
Amnesty International recorded at least 993 executions in 23 countries in 2017 and at least 2,591 death sentences in 53 countries in 2017.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said he was concerned that China chose to “arbitrarily” apply the death penalty to one of his country’s citizens.
Schellenberg was detained more than four years ago and initially sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016.
But last month an appeals court agreed with prosecutors who said the sentence was too lenient, and scheduled Monday’s retrial with just four days’ notice.
Schellenberg’s lawyer Zhang Dongshuo said his client now has 10 days to appeal.
Mr Zhang said he argued in the one-day trial on Monday that there was insufficient evidence to prove his client’s involvement in the drug smuggling operation.
He added that prosecutors had not introduced new evidence to justify a heavier sentence.
“This is a very unique case,” Mr Zhang said.
He said the swiftness of the proceedings – with a retrial held so soon after it was ordered – was unusual, but 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, Mr Zhang said.
The court ruled that Schellenberg was recruited to help smuggle more than 222kg of methamphetamine from a warehouse in Dalian city to Australia.
A Chinese person convicted of involvement in the same operation was earlier given a suspended death sentence.
In 2009, China executed a Briton, Akmal Shaikh, on charges of smuggling heroin despite his supporters’ protest that he was mentally ill.
On Friday, Poland arrested a Huawei director and one of its own former cyber security experts and charged them with spying for China.