Worst feared for re­trial of Cana­dian man

National Post (National Edition) - - CANADA - Tom BLack­weLL

When Cana­dian Robert Schel­len­berg’s drawn-out drug-smug­gling case was sud­denly brought to the fore by Chi­nese me­dia last month, alarm bells went off. When days later an ap­peal court or­dered a re­trial that could re­sult in the death penalty, they sounded louder.

Now that se­cond trial has been set for this Mon­day, barely two weeks after Schel­len­berg’s ap­peal hear­ing and its sur­prise out­come.

The rapid-fire sched­ul­ing is spark­ing more con­cerns that the Ab­bots­ford, B.C., na­tive has be­come the lat­est bar­gain­ing chip in China’s bit­ter diplo­matic tus­sle with Canada — leav­ing his life lit­er­ally hang­ing in the bal­ance.

Chi­nese of­fi­cials have been push­ing Canada hard to re­lease Meng Wanzhou, a top ex­ec­u­tive with tech­nol­ogy gi­ant Huawei, after her ar­rest in Van­cou­ver on an ex­tra­di­tion re­quest by the U.S.

It seems in­creas­ingly likely they res­ur­rected Schel­len­berg’s case to add to the pres­sure, says Don­ald Clarke, a pro­fes­sor and ex­pert on the Chi­nese le­gal sys­tem at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity.

“Send­ing the case back for re­trial gives China the op­por­tu­nity to threaten death and to drag out that threat for as long as nec­es­sary,” Clarke wrote Fri­day in a post on the Law­fare blog. If that’s its in­ten­tion, “China has moved from merely de­tain­ing Cana­di­ans as hostages to ac­tu­ally threat­en­ing — sub­tly, to be sure — to kill a Cana­dian who would oth­er­wise not have been ex­e­cuted if it does not get what it wants.”

The short lag be­tween the ap­peal and trial is also “ut­terly in­ad­e­quate” to pre­pare a de­fence, he added.

“Yes­ter­day’s news (about the trial date) just re­ally, re­ally shocked ev­ery­one,” said Lauri Nel­son-Jones, Schel­len­berg’s aunt and a fam­ily spokes­woman. “We’re all pretty worked up right now about this. It’s not look­ing good.”

The ac­cel­er­ated re­trial adds to the strain on the pris­oner’s par­ents, who have not been al­lowed any kind of di­rect con­tact with their son since his ar­rest in 2014, she said.

China ear­lier de­tained for­mer Cana­dian diplo­mat Michael Kovrig and Cana­dian busi­ness­man Michael Spa­vor on na­tional-se­cu­rity al­le­ga­tions, in what ex­perts be­lieve was a tit-for-tat re­sponse to Meng’s De­cem­ber 1 ar­rest.

Schel­len­berg’s case is dif­fer­ent. It had been qui­etly work­ing its way through the Chi­nese courts for years, and last Novem­ber he was sen­tenced to 15 years in prison, al­legedly for be­ing part of a plan to smug­gle 220 kilo­grams of metham­phetamines to Aus­tralia. (The Cana­dian says he was framed.) But sud­denly last month, Chi­nese me­dia re­ported that he was about to have an ap­peal hear­ing, and govern­ment of­fi­cials took the un­usual step of invit­ing for­eign press to at­tend.

Schel­len­berg filed the ap­peal him­self, but prose­cu­tors con­vinced the court — which de­lib­er­ated for just 20 min­utes — to or­der a re­trial on more se­ri­ous charges that al­low for cap­i­tal punishment, ac­cord­ing to a Wall Street Jour­nal ac­count of the hear­ing.

Schel­len­berg seems an un­likely pawn in such in­ter­na­tional in­trigue. A for­mer high-school foot­ball player and all-round ath­lete who liked to ski and hit the gym, he worked most re­cently in the Al­berta oil fields, said Nel­son-Jones.

“Quiet, but funny. He was al­ways a qui­eter one among the nieces and neph­ews,” the aunt said. “He’s just a re­ally chill, easy-go­ing, kind of gowith-the-flow guy.”

She said her nephew had vis­ited Thailand once, loved it, then re­turned a few months be­fore his 2014 ar­rest. He no­ti­fied his par­ents that he was trav­el­ling from there to China and the next they heard of him was a call from Global Af­fairs Canada a month later to say he had been de­tained.

The crim­i­nal courts of­ten work in­de­pen­dently and

CHINA HAS MOVED ... TO AC­TU­ALLY THREAT­EN­ING — SUB­TLY.

that­may­have­been­the­case for Schel­len­berg un­til re­cently, said John Kamm of the San Fran­cisco-based Dui Hua Foun­da­tion, which ad­vo­cates for “at-risk” pris­on­ers in China. But in po­lit­i­cally sensitive cases — such as those in­volv­ing dis­si­dents or per­se­cuted mi­nori­ties — the “sen­tenc­ing com­mit­tees” work closely with high-up Com­mu­nist party of­fi­cials, he said.

Schel­len­berg, who in­sti­gated the fate­ful ap­peal hear­ing, is “truly unlucky” if he’s now get­ting the lat­ter treat­ment, said Kamm. Diplomats and other Cana­di­ans with close ties to Bei­jing should im­me­di­ately warn the Chi­nese that a death sen­tence would se­verely un­der­mine re­la­tions, and hope for a life sen­tence or a post­poned judg­ment in­stead, he said.

“I don’t see any good out­come to this,” Kamm said. “There are only ter­ri­ble out­comes and less-than-ter­ri­ble out­comes.”

A re-trial for Robert Schel­len­berg, an Ab­bots­ford, B.C. na­tive, in China, has be­come a po­lit­i­cal con­cern.

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