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In this image taken from video footage run by China’s CCTV, Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg attends his retrial in northeastern China. A Chinese court has sentenced him to death in a sudden retrial in a drug smuggling case that is escalating tensions between the countries over the Canadian arrest of a top Chinese technology executive. (CCTV via AP)

It’s time for Canada and China to tone down the rhetoric

The death sentence recently meted out to convicted Canadian drug trafficker Robert Schellenberg in China is another ratcheting up of pressure on Canada by Chinese authorities.

It came after Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States, which wants her to stand trial on charges related to breaking American laws prohibiting trade with Iran.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned China for “arbitrarily” applying the death penalty in the Schellenberg case that has, until now, languished in the Chinese justice system. Schellenberg was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in trying to smuggle 222 kilograms of methamphetamine from China to Australia in 2014.

China has responded by criticizing Trudeau for not having “the slightest respect for the rule of law” and for making “irresponsible remarks.” Both sides also escalated travel advisories for their citizens, urging caution and evaluation of risk.

‘Pressure point’

There is no question that the sudden attention given to Schellenberg is related to the Meng arrest and is another pressure point that China is applying to Canada.

However, China has been somewhat more astute in highlighting Schellenberg’s case in comparison to its clumsy detentions of two other Canadians — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — which occurred right after Meng’s arrest and were ostensibly for violations of China’s national security laws.

Drug trafficking is recognized as a serious crime everywhere. A number of countries — such as Singapore, Indonesia and, yes, China — apply the death penalty in many serious drug trafficking cases.

According to media reports, Schellenberg has a criminal record in Canada with 11 offences dating back to 2003, including several for drug trafficking for which he has spent time in Canadian prisons.

Judging by his track record and the apparent evidence, he is no simple tourist. But does this mean that he merits the death penalty for his offences, or is he a political pawn? The timing of his sudden retrial very much suggests the latter.

But ramping up the rhetoric against China is unlikely to achieve the outcome Canada desires. In fact, just the opposite could happen.

Canada doesn’t have the death penalty, and it’s legitimate and consistent with our values to request other countries to respect that position. But not all do, including the United States.

Touched a nerve

To publicly accuse China of arbitrarily imposing a death sentence is to touch a raw nerve in China, which maintains that it also follows the rule of law.

While there are many good reasons to question that position, China will maintain that there are plenty of precedents for imposing capital punishment for drug trafficking in China, and that they should not be expected to make an exception simply because the accused is a foreigner.

The intemperate opinion piece by Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye, which I myself publicly criticized, accused Canadian “elites” of practising “white supremacy” for arguing that Kovrig’s and Spavor’s detention were unlawful while Meng’s was in accordance with the rule of law.

That kind of inflammatory language is unhelpful, but whether China actually believes that Canada is imposing double standards   — one for Canadians and a different one for Chinese   — or at least chooses to play that card, the fact remains that Schellenberg is vulnerable.

That’s because China could easily make an example of him just to show that he is subject to the same laws and punishments as a Chinese citizen convicted of drug trafficking.

Rather than accusing China of arbitrariness and political motivation in this latest case, it would be better to acknowledge the seriousness of the allegations against Schellenberg and propose that Chinese punishment be tempered with mercy.

Asking for clemency

In fact, there are provisions in Chinese law for the death penalty to be suspended or commuted. For China to take that position in Schellenberg’s case would strengthen its position that this case has not been politicized, but is being dealt with according to law.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has said that Canada has asked China for clemency in this case. That’s the right approach. While there are reports that China has rejected Canada’s appeal, so far there has been no final decision by the Supreme People’s Court.

Chrystia Freeland poses with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi as she arrives for a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing in August 2017. (Wu Hong/Pool Photo via AP)

Pushing China into a corner and escalating the condemning language on this case is a high-risk proposition. If the Chinese can be convinced to spare Schellenberg’s life, it won’t be due to threats. Lowering the temperature on the rhetoric on both sides can only help.

It’s tempting to respond with strong language and threats of consequences, as some have suggested. But now is the time to give China the chance to show the world that while the Chinese justice system can mete out punishment, it can also exercise compassion, demonstrating that Chinese justice can be a combination of both retribution and rehabilitation.

Whatever his sins, Schellenberg deserves that chance. Let’s hope that China rises to the occasion.

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