China to Retry Canadian on Drug Charge Amid Diplomatic Spat

China to Retry Canadian on Drug Charge Amid Diplomatic Spat

BEIJING — A Chinese court on Saturday ordered the retrial of a Canadian man on a drug-smuggling charge after siding with prosecutors who argued that his original 15-year prison sentence for his conviction had been too light.

The decision threatened to create another source of contention between two countries whose relations have deteriorated rapidly this month after a string of arrests.

The Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, was arrested in 2014 and tried and sentenced in obscurity. But he is likely to became a focus of attention in Canada after the court in Dalian, a port city in northeast China, responded to his appeal against a sentence he received last month by siding with prosecutors and opening the possibility of an even harsher sentence.

If the prosecutors prevail in the retrial, Mr. Schellenberg could be sentenced to a longer term, or even the death penalty, at a time when China and Canada are locked in an escalating dispute that began with the arrest in Vancouver of a prominent Chinese technology executive.

The report did not say how Mr. Schellenberg had responded to the prosecutors’ claims. Experts said before the hearing on Saturday that the Chinese government could use his case to turn up pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada.

“If Mr. Schellenberg is condemned to death, Canadians would be distressed as Canada abolished the death penalty completely many years ago,” said Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Beijing and now teaches at Brock University in Ontario.

Chinese courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and they rarely find defendants not guilty. Mr. Schellenberg was tried in March 2016, but the court handed down its verdict and sentence last month. If he is sentenced to death at the retrial, China’s highest court would first review the decision, and Canadian diplomats would almost certainly press for a less-severe punishment.

“The fact is that China’s judiciary is not independent of China’s political process,” Mr. Burton, the former diplomat, said. “This matter is almost certainly caught up in the current dispute between Ottawa and Beijing over the arrest of Huawei C.F.O. Meng Wanzhou.”

Between 2009 and 2015, at least 19 foreigners were executed in China for drug trafficking, said John Kamm, chairman of the Dui Hua Foundation, a group based in San Francisco that monitors human rights in China. The court could also endorse a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, which would almost surely be converted to a long prison term, he said.

The Canadian authorities have so far sought to play down any link between the Schellenberg and Huawei cases.

“Global Affairs Canada has been following this case for several years and has been providing consular assistance to the Canadian citizen since they were first detained,” the Canadian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday. It said privacy laws prevented it from giving more information.

But some commentators in Canada saw a more ominous purpose behind the highly publicized reopening of Mr. Schellenberg’s case.

An article in The National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, said Mr. Schellenberg “might now be a pawn in the much bigger legal battle over Canada’s arrest of a Huawei tech company executive.”

Whatever happens to Mr. Schellenberg, the diplomatic strains exposed this month seem likely to persist.

In an interview about Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig this month, David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the arrests were a warning for Canada and other Western countries engaging with China in the hope that it would evolve into a moderate, law-abiding nation.

“China has not learned to embrace the rule of law and reforms,” he said. “The West needs to hold China more accountable.”

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