Fam­ily ‘scared’ for de­tained Cana­dian fac­ing pos­si­ble ex­e­cu­tion in China


The fam­ily of a Cana­dian man who will go on trial Mon­day for or­ga­niz­ing in­ter­na­tional drug traf­fick­ing in China – an of­fence pun­ish­able by death – fears that his life is be­ing used as a bar­gain­ing chip by Bei­jing to seek lever­age against Ottawa.

Robert Schel­len­berg, 36, was de­tained in China in late 2014. Four years later, au­thor­i­ties sen­tenced him to 15 years in prison for be­ing an ac­ces­sory to drug traf­fick­ing. But in late De­cem­ber, a court or­dered a re­trial af­ter pros­e­cu­tors ar­gued that the ini­tial sen­tence was too le­nient.

The new trial will take place on Mon­day, Chi­nese state me­dia re­ported this week. The bol­stered charge of or­ga­niz­ing in­ter­na­tional drug traf­fick­ing car­ries a max­i­mum penalty of death, rais­ing the spec­tre of a Cana­dian be­ing ex­e­cuted in the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China for the first time, ac­cord­ing to re­search by a U.S. or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in China.

Con­sular of­fi­cials have been able to visit Mr. Schel­len­berg, but his fam­ily has not been able to see him or speak with him since his de­ten­tion.

But now, with a new trial just a few days away, they are seek­ing to draw at­ten­tion to his plight which they see as reprisal by China for the ar­rest in Van­cou­ver of Meng Wanzhou, the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of tech-gi­ant Huawei, whose ex­tra­di­tion the United States has sought.

”There’s no way they are not us­ing him as a pawn,” Lauri Nel­son-Jones, Mr. Schel­len­berg’s aunt, said in an in­ter­view.

“And it’s just harsh. That’s some­one’s kid. That’s some­one’s brother and nephew. And to just say, ‘we’re go­ing to think about end­ing his life now over this’ – it’s not war­ranted. It’s not de­served. It’s heart­break­ing.”

Chi­nese pros­e­cu­tors said they are act­ing in ac­cor­dance with the law, and fol­low­ing new ev­i­dence. Mr. Schel­len­berg is ac­cused of seek­ing to smug­gle 222 kilo­grams of metham­phetamine from China to Aus­tralia. He told a court he was framed.

It took two years for Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties to bring Mr. Schel­len­berg to his first trial, and a fur­ther two years to sen­tence him. But the sched­ul­ing of a re­trial took less than two weeks, af­ter a hear­ing in which a Chi­nese court took the highly un­usual step of wel­com­ing for­eign re­porters to ob­serve.

“There’s a rush to judg­ment here,” said John Kamm, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Dui Hua Foun­da­tion, which seeks the re­lease of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in China.

Mr. Schel­len­berg has be­come “a po­lit­i­cal case. There’s no ques­tion about it. And I’m very con­cerned by that, and by the very ques­tion­able due process,” Mr. Kamm said.

China ex­e­cuted at least 19 for­eign­ers be­tween 2009 and 2015 for drug crimes, Mr. Kamm said. But ac­cord­ing to his re­search, no Cana­dian or Amer­i­can has ever been put to death in mod­ern China.

“It would be the first ex­e­cu­tion of a North Amer­i­can in China. This would be some­thing of tremen­dous con­se­quence,” he said.

Chi­nese courts can also is­sue death sen­tences with a re­prieve al­lowance, which means the pun­ish­ment can to be com­muted to life in prison.

Still, “this case has im­mense sig­nif­i­cance for rule of law, and for China’s pro­jec­tion of soft power. I’m telling, you this will re­dound badly for China if it turns out wrong,” Mr. Kamm said.

China un­der Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has em­pha­sized that it op­er­ates un­der the rule of law, with ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties point­ing to progress in a num­ber of key ar­eas such as bet­ter le­gal pro­tec­tions for in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and con­certed at­tempts to ban­ish con­fes­sions ob­tained by tor­ture.

Chi­nese courts, how­ever, re­main un­der the rule of the Com­mu­nist Party. “China’s sys­tem is like a glove, and the party is the hand in­side the glove,” as a Chi­nese scholar once told Julian Ku, a pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law at Hof­s­tra Univer­sity.

The case against Mr. Schel­len­berg “is al­most cer­tainly be­ing po­lit­i­cally ma­nip­u­lated,” he said, al­though “in a much more sub­tle le­gal­is­tic way than the other cases. It will bring more pres­sure on Canada but be­cause it has been go­ing on for a while, the Chi­nese have a more plau­si­ble le­gal­is­tic de­fence.”

In­deed, the mea­sures taken against Mr. Schel­len­berg ap­pear to be le­gal in China, Prof. Ku said. The Chi­nese work to pub­li­cize the case, how­ever, has of­fered a win­dow into the func­tion of jus­tice in the coun­try, said Joshua Rosen­zweig, an ex­pert on the Chi­nese le­gal sys­tem and the East Asia re­search di­rec­tor at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

“Noth­ing about what I’ve heard about po­ten­tial pro­ce­dural flaws or the un­bal­anced play­ing field be­tween pros­e­cu­tion and de­fence in this case sur­prises me,” he said. “These are rou­tine fea­tures of the Chi­nese sys­tem that we rarely get to see be­cause of the lack of trans­parency.”

Still, that is lit­tle con­so­la­tion to the fam­ily of Mr. Schel­len­berg, who worked in the Al­berta oil patch be­fore em­bark­ing on a lengthy trip in 2013, which took him to Thai­land and then China. He had not trav­elled much be­fore, but “fell in love” with Thai­land, in par­tic­u­lar, Ms. Nel­son-Jones said.

“He’s the lone ranger. He’s just the quiet, soli­tary one, who could travel alone for a year,” she said.

Mr. Schel­len­berg grew up in the Van­cou­ver area, a skier and foot­ball player who took up in­door floor hockey as an adult. He found work in Al­berta, where he worked in the oil patch and earned enough to “have his lit­tle low­ered small cars that he loved,” Ms. Nel­son-Jones said.

Now, she said, with the im­mi­nent re­trial for Mr. Schel­len­berg, “we’re scared. We’re re­ally scared.”

It would be the first ex­e­cu­tion of a North Amer­i­can in China. This would be some­thing of tremen­dous con­se­quence. JOHN KAMM EX­EC­U­TIVE DI­REC­TOR OF DUI HUA FOUN­DA­TION

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