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 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 U.S. has sought.
”There’s no way they are not using him as a pawn,” said Lauri Nelson-Jones, Mr. Schellenberg’s aunt, 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.”