Canadian sentenced to death in China for drug smuggling will appeal

Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was tried, convicted and sentenced to death on Monday 14 January 2019. He was accused of attempting to smuggle almost 500 pounds of methamphetamine into Australia. However, both at the appeal hearing and the retrial, Mr Schellenberg said that he was in China for tourism purposes and that he had unknowingly became entangled in a drug smuggling operation.

The hearing, which was a retrial ordered by an appeals court in December 2018, took place in a port city of Dalian, in northeastern China. According to Zhang Dongshuo, one of Mr Schellenberg’s two defence attorneys, the swiftness of the sentencing on Monday was astonishing.

Mr Zhang said: ‘This really was too fast… Under Chinese law, death sentences should be handled very carefully… Generally, they must be arrived at after careful consideration, assessment and discussion. For a court to announce a death sentence just an hour after the trial really is very, very rare.’

The next step that Mr Schellenberg can take is to formally lodge his appeal within ten days of receiving a written copy of the court verdict. Mr Zhang stated that prosecutors did not provide new evidence on Monday, which could justify a heavier penalty. ‘Under Chinese law, the penalty of a criminal conviction can only be increased on appeal if the prosecution produces new criminal facts,’ Mr Zhang said.

In legal terms the odds are stacked against Mr Schellenberg, as successful appeals in criminal cases are rare and outright acquittals are even rarer. Nevertheless, an appeal can aid Mr Schellenberg by extending the legal process whilst the Canadian government works towards securing clemency.

Mr Schellenberg’s fate seems to be connected to the tense relationship between China and Canada, following Canada’s detainment of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in early December 2018.

Ms Meng is the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, a powerful Chinese telecommunications equipment maker. She is currently free on bail waiting for a court hearing that will decide whether Canadian government can extradite her to the United States. New York prosecutors have accused Ms Meng of fraudulent bank transactions related to business with Iran, which breached United States’ sanctions on Iran.

After Mr Schellenberg’s death sentence, Canada’s foreign service issued a revised travel advisory for Canadians thinking of travelling to China. The advisory recommended ‘a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.’ China retaliated accordingly, with China’s embassy in Ottawa urging Chinese citizens to ‘fully assess the risks of travelling to Canada,’ referring to the detention of Ms Meng without naming her.

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Rassul Merali

May 2021
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