China’s show trial ends with death sen­tence

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Not con­tent with tak­ing Cana­di­ans hostage, China is now threat­en­ing to kill them. It took nearly four years from his De­cem­ber 2014 ar­rest for the Chi­nese le­gal sys­tem to con­vict and sen­tence Robert Schel­len­berg for drug traf­fick­ing. Since the Dec. 1 ar­rest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of the Chi­nese tech­nol­ogy gi­ant Huawei, things have moved a lit­tle quicker.It took just 20 min­utes last month for a Chi­nese court, in re­sponse to Schel­len­berg’s ap­peal of his 15-year sen­tence, to in­stead or­der, at the in­sis­tence of pros­e­cu­tors, that he be re­tried. The re­trial it­self took all of a day Mon­day, fol­lowed within an hour by both ver­dict and sen­tence: death.The sus­pi­cion that some­thing other than the finer points of Chi­nese law might be at work in the sud­den es­ca­la­tion of a 15-year sen­tence into the death penalty — that this was in fact the lat­est step in China’s fu­ri­ous ef­forts to black­mail Canada into re­leas­ing Meng — is not re­stricted to ex­citable news­pa­per colum­nists. It is the opin­ion of vir­tu­ally ev­ery hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion and in­de­pen­dent ex­pert on the Chi­nese le­gal sys­tem.Schel­len­berg now has 10 days to ap­peal, but it is ap­par­ent his fate will de­pend not on the mer­cies of the Chi­nese courts but on the in­ge­nu­ity of Cana­dian di­plo­macy. China is the world’s most pro­lific prac­ti­tioner of ju­di­cial killing, by far, and one of only a hand­ful that ex­e­cutes peo­ple for drug traf­fick­ing.More to the point, it is a dic­ta­tor­ship: the Com­mu­nist party’s ten­ta­cles reach into ev­ery cor­ner of so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing the courts. The idea of ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence is as for­eign to the regime as due process. Whether or not Schel­len­berg is guilty of the crime of which he is ac­cused, his death has been fore­or­dained — just as the two other high-pro­file Cana­di­ans China has taken cap­tive since Meng’s ar­rest, for­mer diplo­mat Michael Kovrig and busi­ness­man Michael Spa­vor, are prob­a­bly doomed to re­main in prison in­def­i­nitely, what­ever the facts of their cases.One prob­lem fac­ing the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, as it con­sid­ers how to re­spond to this cri­sis, is puz­zling out China’s mo­tives.Meng’s ar­rest, at the re­quest of U.S. law en­force­ment — she is ac­cused of hid­ing ties to a Huawei sub­sidiary al­leged to have been evad­ing U.S. sanc­tions on Iran — was doubt­less a set­back to Chi­nese es­pi­onage and se­cu­rity aims, but noth­ing like as much as the fe­ro­cious Chi­nese re­sponse has been.Un­til now, Canada has been vir­tu­ally alone among the coun­tries in the Five Eyes al­liance of in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in re­fus­ing to ban Huawei, widely con­sid­ered to be an in­stru­ment of Chi­nese sur­veil­lance, from sup­ply­ing equip­ment for next gen­er­a­tion 5G wire­less net­works. It is al­most cer­tain to do so now.China’s hopes of sign­ing a free trade deal with Canada, like­wise, and by its ex­am­ple gain­ing sim­i­lar ac­cess to other west­ern economies, must be con­sid­ered all but dashed, notwith­stand­ing Canada’s am­bi­tions to re­duce its heavy de­pen­dence on trade with the United States. Even if the Trudeau gov­ern­ment were dis­posed to con­tinue with its for­mer pol­icy of cozy­ing up to China — at one point there was even dis­cus­sion of sign­ing an ex­tra­di­tion treaty — it can­not af­ford to be seen to do so now.It has, in short, been a thor­ough­go­ing for­eign-pol­icy de­ba­cle for China, one that has not only turned opin­ion in Canada solidly against it, but at­tracted the pub­lic con­dem­na­tion of other coun­tries (at Canada’s urg­ing) in the bar­gain.Sup­pos­edly an emerg­ing world leader, China has looked more like a street­corner bully. (Its am­bas­sador to Canada, in par­tic­u­lar, has not done his coun­try’s cause any favours, first seem­ing to threaten Canada in one pub­lished piece, in an­other ac­cus­ing crit­ics of be­ing mo­ti­vated by “white supremacy.”)And for what? The Chi­nese can­not se­ri­ously be­lieve the gov­ern­ment of Canada could or would or­der a judge to re­lease Meng, who is cur­rently out on bail (un­der house ar­rest) while her ex­tra­di­tion case is be­ing con­sid­ered.The min­is­ter of jus­tice, it is true, has the power to in­ter­vene be­fore an ex­tra­di­tion is ac­tu­ally car­ried out. But again: even if the new min­is­ter, David Lametti, were will­ing to do so in other cir­cum­stances, he can­not pos­si­bly now, in the face of such crude threats.Quite apart from the harm it would do to re­la­tions with the U.S., our neigh­bour, demo­cratic ally and largest trad­ing part­ner, it would amount to re­ward­ing China for its law­less­ness. Those busi­ness voices who, to their shame, were call­ing for some sort of in­for­mal deal to be struck in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math af­ter Meng’s ar­rest must surely fall silent now.Did the Chi­nese mis­cal­cu­late? Did the Trudeau gov­ern­ment’s for­mer com­plaisant ap­proach lead them to be­lieve it was a soft touch, whether out of weak­ness, naivete or des­per­a­tion for Chi­nese busi­ness? If so, how does the gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­cate a firmer line, with­out need­lessly pro­vok­ing the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment?Is it pos­si­ble to com­bine a no-con­ces­sions pol­icy on Meng with a face-sav­ing way for China to come in off the limb it has put it­self out on? On this now de­pends not only the in­tegrity of Cana­dian for­eign pol­icy, but the life of a Cana­dian cit­i­zen.

Cana­dian Robert Lloyd Schel­len­berg faces judges on Mon­day dur­ing his re­trial on drug traf­fick­ing charges at the court in Dalian in China’s north­east Liaon­ing prov­ince. His pre­vi­ous 15-year prison sen­tence was deemed too le­nient, a rul­ing that has deep­ened a di­plo­matic rift be­tween Ot­tawa and Bei­jing.

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