Why Robert Schellenberg was arrested, sentenced to death

Why Robert Schellenberg was arrested, sentenced to death

A Canadian man is facing execution by a Chinese court over a drug smuggling case that has seen tensions escalate between the two countries.

Robert Schellenberg, 36, was sentenced to death after being convicted of attempting to smuggle more than 222kg of methamphetamine to Australia through the northern Chinese port city of Dalian.

Two months earlier, the same court had sentenced Schellenberg to 15 years in prison, but a retrial charged him with being a key figure, rather than just an accessory.

Schellenberg claims he is innocent, telling the court, according to Canadian media: “I am not a drug smuggler. I am not a drug user. I am a normal person. I am innocent.”

He claimed a friend recommended a translator for his visit, and that translator ended up having connections to an international drug-smuggling ring.


Some have argued the decision to execute Schellenberg is retaliatory on China’s part, in response to the high-profile arrest of a Chinese executive last month.

Western legal experts have said the trial is an attempt by China to place pressure on Canada over its arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and daughter of the founder of Chinese telco giant Huawei.

Former Canadian foreign minister Peter Mackay told The Wall Street Journal it was in part China’s way of warning the other nations against aligning with the US against Beijing — based on the fact that the arrest of Meng came at America’s request.

“We are a bit like the meat in a sandwich right now,” he said. “They wouldn’t dream of doing this to the US.”

Meng was arrested in Vancouver on December 1, where she was facing extradition to the United States on suspicion she violated US sanctions against Iran.

Her highly publicised arrest saw the Chinese Government threatening Canada with consequences. The decision to execute Schellenberg may be one of them.

As noted in The Washington Post, China also took the unusual step of inviting foreign media to attend Schellenberg’s appeal hearing — suggesting Beijing wanted to use his case to put pressure on Ottawa to free Meng.

The timing of the re-sentencing was also interesting.

The Chinese press began publicising Schellenberg’s case in December after Canada detained Meng on December 1 at the request of the US.

Since then, China has arrested two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Both Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were arrested on vague national security allegations. A Canadian teacher was detained but released.

Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said his client now has 10 days to appeal.

Zhang said he argued in the one-day trial on Monday that there was insufficient evidence to prove his client’s involvement in the drug smuggling operation. He added that prosecutors had not introduced new evidence to justify a heavier sentence.

“This is a very unique case,” Zhang told Associated Press in a phone interview. He said the swiftness of the proceedings — with a retrial held so soon after it was ordered — was unusual, but declined to comment on whether it was related to Meng’s arrest.


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has issued his strongest-worded statement on the death sentence yet, saying it was extremely concerning to the Canadian Government.

“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 a death penalty,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

Canada’s foreign ministry has also updated its travel advisory to include a warning about the “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

Prior to this, Mr Trudeau had sought to build a better relationship with China, as part of a broader effort to reduce Canada’s reliance on the US.

The Canadian leader has faced criticism for apparently failing to fully acknowledge China’s threat.

Writing in Canadian-English newspaper The National Post, Kelly McParland said it would take an “extraordinarily credulous” leader to accept Huawei’s line that its firm was not spying on Canada.

“China isn’t a democracy. There is only one legal political party. It aims to retain power forever, protected by a powerful military complex with a direct and lucrative stake in maintaining communist control. Individual rights count for nothing against the state’s ability to do as it pleases,” he wrote. “It cares nothing about Canadian law or Canadian ethics. It cares about staying in power within its borders, extending its influence beyond its borders and gaining ground against the US in a global competition for political, military and economic might.”

Mr Trudeau has also faced criticism from China’s ambassador to the country, Lu Shaye, who accused Canada of adopting “double standards” steeped in “white supremacy”.

“The reason why some people are used to arrogantly adopting double standards is due to Western egotism and white supremacy,” he wrote in The Hill Times. “In such a context, the rule of law is nothing but a tool for their political ends and a fig leaf for their practising hegemony in the international arena. What they have been doing is not showing respect for the rule of law, but mocking and trampling the rule of law.”

Of Canadians who criticised China’s actions towards Canadians, he wrote: “To those people, China’s self-defence is an offence to Canada.”

Meng was released on bail a few weeks ago, but has been ordered to remain in British Columbia and wear an ankle bracelet while the US pursues her extradition.

— with wires

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