China silent on Canadian death sentence seen as part of Meng Wanzhou pressure tactics

, China silent on Canadian death sentence seen as part of Meng Wanzhou pressure tactics, The Evepost National News

Within a few weeks of Meng’s 2018 arrest in B.C., Chinese authorities suddenly escalated Robert Schellenberg’s 15-year sentence for drug smuggling to execution

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Amid the jubilation surrounding the release of two Canadians from Chinese prisons, Robert Schellenberg might well be wondering: “What about me?”

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If Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig had to endure a nightmare of arbitrary captivity over the Meng Wanzhou affair, Schellenberg has stared down an even more chilling fate.

Within a few weeks of Meng’s 2018 arrest in Vancouver, Chinese authorities suddenly and in rapid-fire fashion escalated the B.C. man’s 15-year jail sentence for drug smuggling to execution. Appeals were later denied, none of the hearings imposing and confirming the ultimate punishment lasting more than an hour or two.

But in the wake of a deal that saw the Huawei Technologies executive released and sent back to China, there has been no talk about re-instating Schellenberg’s original jail term.

The abrupt stiffening of his sentence was undoubtedly part of Beijing’s pressure tactics to try to free Meng, argues Guy Saint-Jacques, a former ambassador to China.

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While the two Michaels’ release appears to have been part of a deal brokered by U.S. President Joe Biden, however, Canada may still be negotiating to save Schellenberg’s life, he said.

“I’m pretty sure that Ambassador (Dominic) Barton must have raised the case of Schellenberg,” said Saint-Jacques. “(But) I would not be surprised if the Chinese took advantage of the situation to ask a few things from Canada.”

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The ambassador from 2012 to 2016 has some experience of such talks. As Canada pushed for the release of Kevin Garratt — a Canadian Christian aid worker and café owner jailed on trumped-up espionage charges — Beijing pressured Ottawa to start a “dialogue” about national security and a possible extradition treaty in exchange for his freedom, Saint-Jacques said.

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A Global Affairs Canada spokesperson said Wednesday the government remains “opposed to the decision to arbitrarily impose and uphold the death penalty” against Schellenberg and continues to lobby China at the highest levels to win him clemency.

In the meantime, “we continue to monitor the health and well being of Mr. Schellenberg and provide consular assistance to him and his family.”

The family itself is taking a cautious approach given the delicate nature of the diplomatic process and “the fact that Bob’s life hangs in the balance,” said Anna Marie White, who is speaking on the relatives’ behalf.

“We remain optimistic, especially in light of recent events, that there will be progress with the ongoing diplomatic process,” they said in a statement. “We haven’t given up hope for Bob and continue to pray for a more positive outcome.”

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But with Meng back home in China, why has that not happened?

The key may lie with the involvement — or lack thereof — of the White House, said Wei Cui, a University of British Columbia professor and expert on the Chinese legal system.

, China silent on Canadian death sentence seen as part of Meng Wanzhou pressure tactics, The Evepost National News
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after landing in Calgary, following nearly three years of detention in China, September 25, 2021. Photo by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau/Twitter

It appears Biden helped bring about the resolution of the Meng affair in direct telephone conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, making the Michaels’ freedom a condition, he said. But it’s unlikely that the U.S. president would have gone to bat for a convicted drug trafficker, said Cui.

“In the two Michaels case, Canada had the U.S. as leverage. It didn’t have anything else,” he said. “But for Schellenberg, it doesn’t have any leverage. So I don’t know what we can do.”

“China would expect something in return (for sparing the Canadian’s life),” Cui added. “I don’t feel we should be offering much in return.”

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It will also be harder for China to change Schellenberg’s sentence and save face than it was to release Spavor and Kovrig, whose charges were clearly weak from the beginning, he said.

, China silent on Canadian death sentence seen as part of Meng Wanzhou pressure tactics, The Evepost National News

Schellenberg’s situation is certainly murkier than that of the two Michaels.

Before leaving Canada for the far east, he had a record as a drug dealer in Abbotsford, B.C., and area. The former oil-sands worker was sentenced to two years in prison in 2011 for trafficking cocaine and heroin.

Schellenberg says the China charges were a set-up by a translator he met on a visit to the country. Regardless, he was arrested and prosecuted in what appears to have been a fairly routine bust involving the smuggling of 200 kilograms of crystal meth to Australia.

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, China silent on Canadian death sentence seen as part of Meng Wanzhou pressure tactics, The Evepost National News
Canadian Robert Schellenberg during his retrial on drug trafficking charges in Dalian, China, January 14, 2019. Photo by Handout/Intermediate Peoples’ Court of Dalian/AFP/Getty Images

Schellenberg, sentenced to 15 years, appealed the conviction. But then less than a month after Meng’s arrest, prosecutors announced they had appealed the verdict themselves, claiming to have new, more serious evidence against the Canadian. A new trial was ordered, foreign journalists were invited to cover it and the previously low-profile case was publicized in state-run media. The re-trial took place two weeks later and quickly ended with the Canadian being sentenced to death.

That punishment was upheld on appeal last month, the day before Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison — and as Meng’s Canadian extradition proceedings neared their climax.

A number of foreigners — including some Canadians — have been executed under China’s strict drug laws in the past. Three other Canadian citizens are now facing death for drug offences there, cases that Saint-Jacques believes are not politically coloured.

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But experts on the Chinese legal system like Donald Clarke of George Washington University, have said the unusual sequence of events pointed to Schellenberg’s new sentence being part of China’s efforts to get Meng released. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the penalty was “arbitrarily” imposed.

Schellenberg’s last best hope at this point may be that the Supreme People’s Court, which reviews all death sentences before they’re carried out, reinstates his jail term, said Saint-Jacques.

The court almost always does the opposite, confirming executions.

• Email: tblackwell@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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