Robert Schellenberg certainly faced a grim future. His recent drug-smuggling sentence meant another decade or so in a Chinese prison, after a years-long criminal record back home in British Columbia. But at least now the Canadian’s family could visit him for the first time in four years, and an appeal of his conviction was in the works.
Those glimmers of hope vanished in a terrible flash Monday, as a court in China sentenced the 36-year-old to death, dramatically underlining fears that his case has become the latest bargaining chip in China’s bitter feud with Canada.
Experts link his case to Canada’s arrest of an executive with China’s Huawei technology giant, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the sentence – meted out at a hastily conducted retrial – a matter of “extreme concern.”
For friends and family, the news was simply tragic. Despite a checkered past as a small-city drug dealer, with addiction problems of his own, they called Schellenberg a thoughtful, warm human being.
“Worse case fears confirmed,” his aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, told the National Post Monday. “Our thoughts are with Robert at this time. It is rather unimaginable what he must be feeling and thinking. It is a horrific, unfortunate, heartbreaking situation.”
Schellenberg was sentenced just two months ago to 15 years in prison for his part in an alleged operation to dispatch 200 kilograms of crystal meth from the port city of Dalian to Australia, the case unfolding mostly in obscurity since his 2014 arrest.
But late last month, Chinese media suddenly publicized his appeal hearing, and then the appeal court unexpectedly ordered a retrial at the urging of prosecutors who wanted a tougher penalty.
The retrial was scheduled for barely two weeks later, and the verdict and sentence were reportedly handed down Monday with little deliberation.
Unlike one of the other accused in the case, Schellenberg’s death sentence did not come with a two-year suspension, which usually results in the penalty being commuted to life in prison, noted Margaret Lewis, a law professor at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University and an expert on the Chinese legal system.
He can appeal, and all death penalties are reviewed – and invariably confirmed – by the Supreme People’s Court, but without political intervention, his prospects look grim, she said.
“Unless there is some dramatic turn of events, this is marching toward execution in the not too distant future,” said Lewis. “This is the most severe sentence allowed under Chinese law. It is death, with execution after crossing the Ts and dotting the Is.”
China also suddenly began working hard to push Schellenberg’s case to international prominence, taking the highly unusual step of inviting foreign journalists into the court, the John Sudworth in Beijing.
And despite the Canadian’s insistence that he is innocent, his retrial lasted just a day, with his death sentence being announced barely an hour after its conclusion.
On Tuesday said “unreasonable speculation” in Western media linking his case to Ms. Meng’s showed “rude contempt toward Chinese law”.
“The trial will also send the message that China won’t yield to outside pressure in implementing its law,” it said.
However, back in December, the editor of the Global Times warned that China would “definitely take retaliatory measures against Canada” if Ms. Meng was not released.
Hu Xijin said: “If Canada extradites Meng to the US, China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”