Flags fly in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)

China Death Sentence Raises Stakes in Huawei Feud With Canada

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A Chinese court sentenced a Canadian man to death for drug trafficking, a move Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced as “arbitrary” as the two nations feud over last month’s arrest of a Huawei Technologies Co. executive.

Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was convicted and given a death sentence after a one-day retrial, according to a statement posted on the website of the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court. Schellenberg was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison after his conviction, but the penalty increased after an appeal. He can still appeal the latest decision.

China Death Sentence Raises Stakes in Huawei Feud With Canada

“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, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Monday in Ottawa. Canada later updated its travel advisory for the country, urging its citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

China in turn issued a travel alert for Canada, telling its citizens to "fully assess the risks of travel" after a Chinese citizen was "arbitrarily" detained by Canadian law enforcement on the request of a third country.

The Schellenberg verdict comes as two other high-profile Canadian cases in China remain in limbo. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were each detained on Dec. 10 in the aftermath of Canada’s arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. Meng is out on bail, while Kovrig and Spavor remain in custody, unable to access lawyers.

Timing ‘Suspicious’

“The timing looks very suspicious as it does for the other two Canadians -- so to me there’s a high risk that this is another form of retaliation,” said Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. “It has a chilling effect that goes beyond the cases themselves.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying rejected accusations of political motivation as “malicious slander,” telling a regular news briefing Tuesday that the country was upholding its laws against drug trafficking. She said Canada’s updated travel advisory was like “a thief shouting ‘thief.’”

“It is Canada, not China that is arbitrarily detaining foreign citizens under the guise of the law,” Hua said.

In another sign of fraying ties, China has asked some state-run enterprises to avoid business trips to the U.S. and its allies including Canada, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday. The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission -- a body that oversees about 100 government-owned companies -- also told them to take extra precautions to secure devices when traveling in those countries, Bloomberg reported, citing people familiar with the request.

The Chinese court said Schellenberg was involved in smuggling 222 kilograms (490 pounds) of crystal meth. His initial conviction on Nov. 20, with a lower penalty, found him to have been an accomplice. He has a 10-day window to appeal the latest decision.

China Death Sentence Raises Stakes in Huawei Feud With Canada

Schellenberg’s lawyer said he had decided to appeal the death sentence, Reuters editor Vincent Lee posted in a tweet.

China imposes the death penalty by far more than any other country, according to Amnesty International’s annual report on the global use of capital punishment, although official statistics are protected as a state secret. The country is among only a few that put people to death for drug-related offenses, including sometimes foreigners.

In 2009, China executed U.K. citizen Akmal Shaikh for heroin smuggling, despite questions about his mental health and appeals from then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Trudeau has accused China of failing to respect the principles of diplomatic immunity in the detention of Kovrig, who is on leave from his job with Canada’s foreign department to work with the International Crisis Group. On Tuesday, Hua repeated her earlier criticism of the claim, saying that Kovrig wasn’t entitled to diplomatic immunity because he entered the country on a business visa.

Meng’s next hearing is in February, but such extradition cases can take years. The final say on extradition will fall to Canada’s justice minister, a role Trudeau reassigned Monday. Quebec lawmaker David Lametti was named to the job in a cabinet shuffle, replacing Jody Wilson-Raybould.

“I won’t comment specifically because I may have a role down the road but I will say that we are a rule of law country,” Lametti told reporters after being sworn in. “I will always act to protect the rule of law.”

China Death Sentence Raises Stakes in Huawei Feud With Canada

China often moves quickly to execute people after a conviction, meaning there may be very little time to intervene once any appeal is dealt with.

“There’ll probably be no choice but for the prime minister to make an appeal” directly to Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Houlden, of the University of Alberta. “I’m not full of optimism that this will change the course.”

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