Canada warns citizens about China’s ‘arbitrary enforcement of laws’ after drug smuggling death sentence

  • Canadians told to exercise high degree of caution in China after Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was sentenced to death in retrial on Monday
  • Sentence seen as retaliation by Beijing for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Sabrina Meng Wanzhou
Topic | Canada

Keegan Elmer

Sarah Zheng



Robert Lloyd Schellenberg’s retrial took place on Monday after his previous 15-year prison sentence was deemed too lenient. Photo: AFP

Canada has warned its citizens of the “risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws” in China after a Canadian was sentenced to death in a retrial that further escalated tensions between Beijing and Ottawa.

“We encourage Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws,” Global Affairs Canada said on Tuesday, without referring to the sentencing of Robert Lloyd Schellenberg on drug charges.

Hours after Canada, China also issued a travel warning that Chinese citizens should be aware of the risks of being “arbitrarily detained” in China.

A court in Dalian, Liaoning province, sentenced Schellenberg to death for drug smuggling on Monday.

The sentence has been seen as retaliation by Beijing for Huawei executive Sabrina Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada in December at the request of the United States, where she is accused of fraud relating to violation of US sanctions against Iran. Beijing demanded that Canada release Meng or face grave consequences.

Meng was released on bail, and the US has until January 29 to file a formal extradition request.

Justin Trudeau vows to ‘intercede’ as Canadian Robert Schellenberg is sentenced to death in China for drug trafficking

Schellenberg, 36, had previously been sentenced to 15 years in prison in November 2016, but the provincial high court ordered a retrial on December 29 after prosecutors deemed the sentence “too lenient”.

Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said the death sentence was “very regretful” and he would probably appeal against it.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was prepared to intervene on Schellenberg’s behalf.

“It is of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies, that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply [the] death penalty … as in this case facing a Canadian,” Trudeau said on Monday.

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On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying pushed back against Trudeau’s condemnation, saying the facts of the case were “clear” and the evidence “sufficient”.

“All are equal before the law, and this is the true spirit of rule of law,” she said. “The comments by the relevant individuals in Canada lack a bare minimum of the rule of law spirit, to which we express serious dissatisfaction.”

She added that drug crimes are recognised as a serious offences across the world for “causing significant harm to society”, and China was no exception.

Days after Meng’s arrest on December 1, China detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, accusing them of endangering national security.

Canada, the European Union, the US and other countries have denounced the detentions of Spavor and Kovrig as arbitrary.

Phil Calvert, a former Canadian ambassador and a senior research fellow with the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said the case of Schellenberg, and those of Kovrig and Spavor, would lead to a cooling-off in Canada-China ties and would hamper negotiations on a free trade agreement.

“It’s quite ham-fisted, and it really won’t achieve China’s goal of having Meng released,” Calvert said. “China has lashed out at Canada, but it’s hurting itself with this approach.

“The number of its friends in the world is diminishing, and this won’t help it make new ones. Initiatives to deepen bilateral ties, like a possible free trade agreement, are very likely to be shelved.”

The pressure was now on for Canada to engage with China during the 10-day appeal period after Schellenberg’s sentencing, he said.

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“Canada needs to engage at very high levels with Chinese counterparts – senior officials, ministers, prime minister, business and other senior people – on this case and on the two detained Canadians [Kovrig and Spavor], and to get other allies engaged on it,” he said.

Calvert added that the case could affect China’s relations with other countries doing business in China. “If China is going to react so strongly when a country takes legal action – transparent action based on the rule of law – against a major Chinese company, what does that say about the attractiveness of Chinese investment?”

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Scott McKnight, managing editor of the China Open Research Network at the University of Toronto, said the death penalty was damaging to China’s broader diplomatic image, and that Canada had to handle cases of the approximately 200 Canadians detained in China with care.

“The Trudeau government will really need to tread carefully, given that the cases of any of these detainees could be used as a bargaining chip in the diplomatic showdown,” McKnight said.

“We’re now in a pretty scary part of international relations where the foreign national of a country with whom the host country doesn’t have the best relations can be taken arbitrarily and used as a pawn.”

Schellenberg was sentenced in a Canadian court in 2012 to two years for possession of cocaine and heroin for trafficking purposes, and simple possession of cannabis resin and methamphetamine, according to CBC News. He served 16 months and 12 days for the four counts, to which he pleaded guilty.

At the time, the judge from British Columbia told Schellenberg that his country “deserves much better from you”.

The court in Dalian said on Tuesday that the retrial of Schellenberg complied with the law and procedural requirements.

Justin Trudeau
Keegan is a reporter at the Post covering China in world affairs, including US-China relations and China's relationship with its neighbours. He has degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the University of Helsinki.
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