Robert Schellenberg, who is facing the death penalty in China for drug trafficking, lost his appeal Tuesday and a second important verdict will be handed down by the country’s courts later this week.
The latter verdict will concern Michael Spavor, one of the two Canadian men who were arrested in apparent retaliation for Canada’s detention of a Huawei executive. He is expected to learn his fate in Dandong, near the North Korean border. A judgment is expected Wednesday morning local time. Note: Mr. Spavor was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The two verdicts, coming right before an expected federal election call in Canada, could make for a momentous week in Canada-China relations, which have sunk to their worst level since students were killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Higher People’s Court of Liaoning Province said early Tuesday that Mr. Schellenberg’s appeal was unsuccessful, and it upheld the lower court’s sentence. The ruling will be reported to the Supreme People’s Court for approval, it said in a statement.
The facts laid out in the lower court were clear, and the evidence presented was “reliable and sufficient,” the Liaoning higher court said Tuesday. “The conviction was accurate, the sentence was appropriate, and the trial proceedings were in accordance with the law,” it added.
China has a conviction rate of over 99 per cent, according to official statistics, and appeals are almost never successful.
Mr. Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, told The Globe that the verdict was not a surprise.
He said that the chance of the Supreme People’s Court commuting a death penalty was “relatively low” but “not impossible.”
Mr. Zhang said he was unable to meet with his client ahead of the hearing, and had not seen him in person for months due to coronavirus restrictions, which even affected his ability to provide written advice.
“I wrote him a letter ahead of the [appeal], in which I explained to him all the possible results there might be … but he did not receive it,” the lawyer said, adding that as of Tuesday, the letter was still in the hands of the postal service.
In its statement, the court said that Schellenberg was provided with interpreters, and that diplomats from the Canadian embassy in Beijing, as well as senior Chinese officials, were in attendance.
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, said that he had spoken with Mr. Schellenberg and that he was “remarkably composed.”
“This is by no means done,” Mr. Barton said, adding that this trial is “part of a process, a geopolitical process,” and that it was “no coincidence that this is happening right now while events are ongoing in Vancouver” with the trial of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Mr. Schellenberg had originally been sentenced to 15 years in prison in November, 2018, but in late December that same year – just weeks after Ms. Meng was arrested in Canada on a U.S. extradition request – Chinese authorities reopened his case.
He was ordered to face retrial, after prosecutors, citing the emergence of new evidence, alleged that he was involved in organized international drug trafficking, a crime whose maximum sentence is execution.
He was tried again and, in January, 2019, found guilty of conspiring to traffic 222 kilograms of methamphetamine. This time he was sentenced to death – a penalty the Canadian government called “arbitrary.” Canada has asked China for clemency and expressed concern about the timing and speed of the verdict deliberations that led to the death penalty sentence.
Mr. Schellenberg appealed the sentence, leading to Tuesday’s decision in Liaoning High Court in Shenyang. He attended the proceedings virtually from a detention centre in Dalian.
Mr. Spavor, a businessman, and Mr. Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, were both seized by Chinese state security agents on December 10, 2018, in apparent retaliation for the detention of Ms. Meng in Canada.
September 4 this year will mark 1,000 days since Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were locked up by China. Ottawa has accused Beijing of “hostage diplomacy.”
Ms. Meng, meanwhile, is free on bail in Vancouver, as she fights the U.S. extradition request.
Mr. Barton said that “my first priority is securing the release of the two Michaels, and seeking clemency for Robert Schellenberg,” and that continues to be the case following Tuesday’s verdict.
Chinese authorities have accused both Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig of violating state secrets laws, but have made public no evidence of their alleged wrongdoing. Neither man has been granted bail.
Mr. Spavor is imprisoned in Dandong, a city where he had been living that is located on the border with North Korea. He has, in correspondence with family, requested sleeping masks, which suggests he is being kept in a facility with 24-hour lighting.
He underwent a secret, two-hour trial in March this year in Beijing. The court declined to issue a verdict or sentencing at the time. Canadian diplomats had asserted their consular rights to attend the trial but China barred them from the proceedings.
A Canadian official with knowledge of the cases cautioned that the verdicts represent only one more moment in what will continue to be a drawn-out legal and diplomatic saga.
The official said China had recently alerted Canada that the verdicts were coming down.
Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton was at the hearing for Mr. Schellenberg Tuesday, and will be present for the reading of the verdict on Mr. Spavor.
He has also been in touch with the two men’s families.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau spoke Monday to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Group of Seven counterparts to inform them of the pending judgments and to seek their continued support to keep pressure on Beijing for leniency.
Mr. Barton had spent three weeks in Washington in early April trying to enlist U.S. assistance in freeing Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig. The Canadian official on Monday would only say that the Washington process is going well, but provided no further information. The Globe is not naming the official because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
As the Globe and Mail reported earlier this year, Mr. Barton’s confidential mission to Washington involved discussions about a possible U.S. deferred prosecution agreement for Ms. Meng that could lead to freedom for Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig.
Mr. Schellenberg has maintained his innocence since he was first arrested in 2014 while on board an airplane in Guangzhou.
In the single-day trial in January, 2019, Mr. Schellenberg described himself as a tourist caught up in a conspiracy to traffic drugs to Australia by a man he thought was his translator.
“I am not a drug smuggler. I am not a drug user. I am a normal person,” he said. “I am innocent.”
But that translator, Xu Qing, appeared in court as a witness, saying he himself was a pawn – an interpreter inadvertently embroiled in a plan by Mr. Schellenberg and others to pack 222 kilograms of methamphetamine into bags filled with plastic granules and hide them inside tires. The court adopted the arguments made by prosecutors, who used phone and banking records to paint Mr. Schellenberg as part of a criminal conspiracy to move large amounts of drugs.
Mr. Schellenberg has been convicted of drug-related offences before. In April, 2012, he was sentenced by a B.C. Supreme Court judge to 16 months and 12 days in prison after pleading guilty to possessing cocaine and heroin for the purposes of trafficking. He had also pleaded guilty to simple possession of cannabis and methamphetamine.
Legal experts say the brevity of Mr. Spavor’s trial indicates certainty by the court about the charges and suggests a light sentence is unlikely.
Canada had strongly criticized China for holding the trial without allowing Canadian officials access to the court or evidence.
“Their arbitrary detention is completely unacceptable, as is the lack of transparency around these court proceedings,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in March. “One of the challenges around the lack of transparency on that process is it becomes extremely difficult to make judgments around whether or not the trial was fair.”
ROBERT FIFE, OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF
STEVEN CHASE, SENIOR PARLIAMENTARY REPORTER
JAMES GRIFFITHS, ASIA CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, August 9, 2021