DALIAN, China: A Canadian man accused of drug smuggling in China appeared at a new trial Monday after an upper court called for a harsher sentence in a case that could further strain ties between Beijing and Ottawa.
Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, 36, was brought in handcuffs to a hearing in the northeast city of Dalian where he could potentially face the death penalty, weeks after his appeal of a 15-year prison sentence backfired.
Canadian embassy officials and three foreign journalists, including AFP, were given rare access to his retrial, which comes against the backdrop of the Chinese government’s anger over the arrest in Canada of a top executive from telecom giant Huawei last month.
Chinese authorities have since detained two Canadian nationals a former diplomat and a business – consultant – on suspicion of endangering national security, a move seen as an act of retaliation over the Huawei executive’s arrest.
Schellenberg, who was reportedly detained in northeast Liaoning province in 2014, is accused of playing an important role in drug smuggling and of potential involvement in international organised crime.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a 150,000 yuan (22,000 USD) forfeiture in November. But following an appeal a high court in Liaoning ruled in December that the sentence was too lenient given the severity of his crimes.
In an opening statement, Schellenberg said he had come to China after travelling through Southeast Asia, including Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
He said a friend recommended him a man named Xu Qing as a translator and he was swept up in what has turned out to be an international drug trafficking syndicate.
“This is a case about Xu Qing, he is an international drug smuggler and a liar,“ Schellenberg told the court.
The crux of the retrial hinges on how much Schellenberg knows about the drug deal, which he claims was masterminded by Khamla Wong, a Canadian who was in 2016 arrested on drug charges.
No coins in courtroom.
Chinese prosecutors say that Schellenberg was part of an international syndicate which planned to send 222 kilogrammes of methamphetamine to Australia, hidden within plastic pellets concealed in rubber tyres.
Prosecutors brought in Xu as a witness, who in close to two hours of testimony never once turned to look at Schellenberg.
When pressed on details, he frequently said he could not remember and to refer to a written statement for details, including when Schellenberg questioned him about 180,000 yuan (27,000 USD) he was purportedly given.
Two other Chinese men have been involved in this case – one has been sentenced to life imprisonment, another handed a suspended death sentence.
The court was filled with about 70 observers who were patted down and made to empty pockets – receipts and stray coins were to be left at security.
The hearing was continuing in the afternoon.
China has executed other foreigners for drug-related crimes in the past.
William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said the human rights group is “very concerned that Robert Schellenberg may be sentenced to death”.
Court retrials are rare in China and retrials calling for a harsher sentence are even rarer, said Donald Clarke, a George Washington University professor specialising in Chinese law.
“It is obvious… that Schellenberg’s fate will have little to do with his actual guilt or innocence,“ Clarke added.
“If the Chinese government has an innocent explanation for all the unusual features of this case, I hope it will provide it. Otherwise, I don’t know how to understand this case other than as a simple threat.”
Ottawa said it was following the case “very closely” and has provided Schellenberg with consular assistance.
Beijing has repeatedly denied any diplomatic pressure behind Schellenberg’s case.
“You can ask these (critics) which laws the relevant Chinese judicial organs and departments have violated by (ordering a retrial),“ foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular press briefing on Friday.
“If no laws have been broken, I hope that these people can stop recklessly suspecting others of politicising legal issues just because they have done so.” — AFP