Canada calls for clemency over drug trafficking death sentence for citizen Robert Schellenberg in China

Canada urged Beijing on Tuesday to grant clemency to a Canadian sentenced to death for drug trafficking, after his sentence reignited a diplomatic dispute that began last month.

Ottawa has warned its citizens about the risk of “arbitrary enforcement” of laws in China following a court’s sentencing of Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, 36, to death on Monday, in a retrial after he was previously handed a 15-year prison term.

The new sentence came during a clash between Ottawa and Beijing over Canada’s arrest in December of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, on an extradition request from the United States related to alleged violation of sanctions on Iran.

“We have already spoken with China’s ambassador to Canada and requested clemency [for Schellenberg],” Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Sainte-Hyacinthe, Quebec.

Earlier, Beijing said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made “irresponsible remarks” by saying China chose to “arbitrarily apply” death penalties.

Freeland reiterated Canada’s long-standing opposition to capital punishment. “We believe it is inhumane and inappropriate, and wherever the death penalty is considered with regard to a Canadian we speak out against it,” she said.

In a move observers see as retaliation for the Huawei case, Chinese authorities have detained two other Canadian citizens separately – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and business consultant Michael Spavor – since December on suspicion of endangering national security.

The timing and swiftness of Schellenberg’s sentencing, and the inclusion of new evidence, raised suspicion among observers.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said China was “playing hostage politics”.

In response to Canada’s travel advisory on China, Beijing issued a similar response, urging its nationals to “travel cautiously”.

China executes one or two foreigners every year, nearly all for drug offences, according to John Kamm, director of the US-based Dui Hua Foundation rights group.