BEIJING (Reuters) – A Canadian man sentenced to death in China for drug smuggling will appeal the verdict, his lawyer said on Tuesday, arguing that the court should not have increased his sentence given no new evidence had been introduced during his retrial.
The sentence handed down to Robert Schellenberg on Monday is another strain on relations between China and Canada, which have been at odds since early December when Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL], on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Schellenberg had appealed against a 15-year prison sentence for smuggling 222 kg of methamphetamines. But the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in the northeastern province of Liaoning increased the sentence to death at the end of a retrial.
Schellenberg is the third Canadian to run afoul of Chinese law since Meng was arrested at the behest of U.S. authorities as part of an investigation into alleged violations of U.S. trade sanctions.
The two other detained Canadians are former diplomat Michael Kovrig and business consultant Michael Spavor – both held on suspicion of endangering state security.
China has not linked any of the three Canadians’ cases to Meng’s arrest.
Schellenberg’s lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said his client’s defense has centered around an argument there was insufficient evidence to prove he was part of a drug syndicate, or that he was involved in the smuggling of methamphetamines.
But even if the court accepted all prosecution charges, it should not have increased his sentence, given that facts the prosecution presented as new evidence had already been heard in court, Zhang told Reuters.
“Chinese law stipulates that during an appeal, only if new evidence is discovered and retried can there be an increase in the severity of a sentence,” Zhang said.
“They are not new facts so you cannot increase the severity of the sentence.”
Zhang said Schellenberg would lodge an appeal.
Earlier, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was of “extreme concern” that China had chosen to “arbitrarily apply” the death penalty.
A Chinese state-run newspaper rejected any suggestion China was putting pressure on Canada with the sentence, saying it was “unreasonable speculation” and showed “rude contempt” toward Chinese law.
“Public opinion in Canada has claimed recently that China is ‘politicizing’ Schellenberg’s case, but what Canada is doing is actually politicizing law,” the nationalist Global Times said in an editorial late on Monday.
International rights groups condemned Schellenberg’s sentence with some saying it was too severe and may have been politically motivated.
“China is going to face lots of questions about why this particular person, of this particular nationality, had to be retried at this particular time,” Human Rights Watch’s Washington-based China director Sophie Richardson told Reuters.
Though Schellenberg was arrested in 2014, state media has played up coverage of his case following the deterioration in relations with Canada.
The court invited media to cover the retrial, and state television aired a five-minute segment on the proceedings.
The Global Times said the sentence would convey the message that “drug smuggling faces higher risks in China”.
“The trial will also send the message that China won’t yield to outside pressure in implementing its law,” it said.
Drug smuggling is routinely punished severely in China, and foreigners convicted of drug crimes have been executed before, including a Briton in 2009.
Schellenberg had faced a number of charges in Canada related to drug possession and drug trafficking, according to Canadian court records.
One foreign expert on Chinese law questioned the swift verdict in Schellenberg’s retrial, given the political backdrop. The death penalty was handed down at the end of a one-day hearing.
“I do not know whether Schellenberg is guilty,” Donald Clarke of George Washington University said in an online post.
“But I do know that before Meng Wanzhou’s detention, the original trial court heard the case and then thought about it for over two and half years before deciding that a sentence of 15 years in prison was an appropriate punishment.”
Reporting by Philip Wen and Michael Martina in Beijing; Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver and Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel