China Tries Canada’s Resolve

THE CASES OF Robert Schellenberg, a convicted Canadian facing the death penalty in China, and Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer facing extradition from Canada, have no legal connection beyond timing.

In November 2018, Schellenberg was sentenced to 15 years in jail, having been convicted of planning in 2014 to smuggle a large quantity of methamphetamine to Australia, a charge to which he pleaded not guilty.

The following January, after a one-day retrial ordered after he appealed the sentence, the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court ruled the original sentence was too lenient and imposed the death penalty.

This occurred shortly after police in Canada detained Meng while changing flights in Vancouver in response to an extradition warrant from the United States, where she is wanted on fraud charges.

Nine days after Meng’s detention, two other Canadian citizens, Michael Spavor, a businessman, and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, were arrested by authorities on espionage charges.

The two men were tried days apart in March; Spavor in Dandong and Kovrig in Beijing. No verdicts or sentences were announced after either hearing. Both were closed to Canadian diplomats on the grounds that trials involving state secrets are not open to the public.

Canadian officials expect at least one sentence, most likely Spavor’s, to be announced imminently. (Update: Spavor has been sentenced to 11 years in prison.) On August 10, a court in Shenyang denied Schellenberg’s appeal against the death sentence. He has one legal recourse left, an appeal to China’s Supreme Court.

The timing is pertinent. Meng’s appeal against her extradition is due to conclude on August 20.

It is difficult not to conclude that Beijing is exploiting the Canadians’ cases to put pressure on Canada. Canadian officials have called it hostage diplomacy.

Beijing denies any political connection, as would be expected: the judicial system is taking its natural course with three defendants facing serious charges.

The independence of the Canadian judiciary should insulate it from political pressure from Ottowa, should the Trudeau government choose to exert it. Doubling the jeopardy for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he likely faces a general election later this year. The cases are already a pre-campaign campaign issue in Canada.

However, even if Canada is steadfast in not releasing Meng as Beijing wants, or, even less likely, the Biden administration drops its extradition warrant for Meng, the potential arrest of foreign nationals may have a chilling effect on the Canadian or other governments in future. China’s legal system makes it straightforward for authorities to find pretexts for taking foreign nationals hostage.

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