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Ottawa condemns Beijing after court upholds death penalty for Canadian drug trafficker

Robert Schellenberg’s defense team has lost an appeal against his death sentence, marking the latest turn in a protracted court battle over the 2014 drug charges. The Higher People’s Court of Liaoning Province ruled on Tuesday that his “conviction was accurate, the sentence was appropriate, and the trial procedures were legal.”

The decision was criticized by senior Canadian officials. Foreign Minister Marc Garneau condemned Beijing, saying in a statement that his country opposes death penalty “in any case,” calling Schellenberg’s sentence “arbitrary.”

“We have repeatedly expressed to China our strong opposition to this cruel and inhumane punishment and will continue to engage with Chinese officials at the highest level to grant clemency to Mr. Schellenberg,” he said.

Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, voiced the same sentiment when speaking to reporters after the court ruling. He said the case was “part of the geopolitical process,” referring to Canadian claims that China is using ‘hostage diplomacy’ with Canadian citizens.

Schellenberg, now in his late 30s, is a native of Abbotsford, British Columbia. In his home country, he had several brushes with the law, including being jailed in 2012 for possession of illegal drugs with intention to traffic. His family said he developed an addiction after a work-related accident required him to take painkillers, and had a falling out with his father over his substance abuse.

Shortly after his release from prison in Canada, he moved to Asia, a region where many nations, including China, have a zero-tolerance policy on drug trafficking. In 2014, he was arrested for allegedly attempting to smuggle 222kg of methamphetamine from China to Australia.

During his first trial at the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in 2016, he claimed he had been framed by a drug trafficker. The judge handed him a 15-year sentence and a $23,000 fine, which Schellenberg unsuccessfully appealed.

His punishment was upgraded to a death sentence in 2019 after a retrial, which was ordered by the provincial court during his appeal hearings the previous year. His defense argued that the ruling violates Chinese law, which doesn’t allow a harsher punishment to be given in a retrial, unless new circumstances in the case are discovered. The Chinese side disagreed, saying new evidence was presented by prosecutors to prove that the failed attempt to move the drugs was part of an international trafficking ring operation, in which Schellenberg played a crucial part.

The 2019 proceedings took place weeks after Canadian authorities, acting on behalf of Washington, arrested Meng Wanzhou, the vice president of Chinese tech giant Huawei, as she was making a transit flight. The arrest caused a major diplomatic row between Beijing and Ottawa.

Senior Canadian officials have implied that the capital punishment in Schellenberg’s case was part of China’s retaliation. In another case, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadian citizens arrested in China in the wake of the Meng detention scandal, are perceived by Ottawa as victims of the same strong-arm approach. A verdict in the espionage trial of Spavor is expected later this week.

The US case to extradite Meng from Canada is currently going through the final arguments at the Court of British Columbia. She is accused by the US of financial fraud aimed at circumventing unilateral US sanctions against Iran.

This ruling on Schellenberg’s case was made after the provincial court rejected an appeal to his retrial verdict. The case will now be sent to the Chinese supreme court for review, which is the standard procedure for all death sentences in the country.

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