January 16, 2019 / 10:00 AM / a month ago

China brushes off outrage over death sentence, Canada fires back

BEIJING/SHERBROOKE, Quebec (Reuters) - China said on Wednesday it was “not worried in the slightest” by mounting international concern over the death sentence handed to a Canadian for drug smuggling.

FILE PHOTO: Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg appears in court for a retrial of his drug smuggling case in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, January 14, 2019, in this handout picture received by Reuters January 15, 2019. Intermediate People's Court of Dalian/Handout via REUTERS

Monday’s sentence for Robert Schellenberg for smuggling 222 kg (489 lbs) of methamphetamines prompted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to accuse China of “arbitrarily” applying the death penalty.

Trudeau has called several world leaders in recent days to share concerns about the case of Schellenberg and two Canadians that Beijing detained last month after a senior Chinese executive was arrested in Vancouver on a U.S. arrest warrant.

Speaking at a daily news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Canada’s “so-called allies could be counted on ten fingers” and did not represent the views of the wider international community.

“I can very clearly state that we are not worried in the slightest,” Hua said of the mounting outcry, adding that a majority of Chinese supported severe punishment for drug crimes.

Schellenberg’s sentence has further strained relations between China and Canada, already aggravated by the December arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL], on a U.S. extradition request.

Asked about Hua’s remarks, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland noted that the 28-nation European Union had offered its backing to Ottawa.

“We’re very pleased to have this support from the EU which ..., like Canada, believes in the rule of law,” she told reporters as Trudeau’s cabinet prepared to meet in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

For the second day in a row, however, she stressed that Canada and China enjoyed a broad and deep relationship.

Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on Tuesday and “expressed their concerns about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals”, the State Department said.

Days after Meng’s arrest, China detained two Canadians on suspicion of endangering state security. One of the men, Michael Kovrig, is a diplomat on leave without pay from Canada’s embassy in Beijing.

John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, told reporters the standoff would not be settled quickly and vowed to enlist the help of foreign allies - especially the United States - and the business community.

“I think we have to engage the senior Chinese leaders and persuade them that what they are doing is not good for China’s image in the world, it’s not good for the image of corporate China,” he said on the sidelines of the retreat.

“It’s difficult, it won’t happen tomorrow.”

Trudeau complained last week that China was not respecting Kovrig’s diplomatic immunity. A source directly familiar with the case said Canada was unhappy because Chinese officials were questioning Kovrig about his work when stationed at the embassy.

The news was first reported by the Globe and Mail newspaper.

McCallum said Kovrig and the other Canadian were being questioned up to four hours a day, had no access to lawyers and were only allowed one consular visit a month.

China has not linked any of the three Canadians’ cases to Meng’s arrest, but has warned of severe consequences if she was not immediately released.

The Global Times, a state-run tabloid with a nationalistic bent, said China “cannot be weak at this time”.

“Canada does not have any special cards that can allow Chinese law to bow its head to it,” the newspaper said in an editorial on Wednesday, adding that Canada’s protests would have no effect.

Freeland said on Tuesday that Ottawa had formally applied for clemency for Schellenberg.

When asked if China typically listened to this type of request, Hua said the judiciary was not subject to “interference from administrative organs”.

“You ask whether China is willing to listen to the Canadian side’s request, but I don’t know if Canada’s leaders or politicians have seriously listened to China’s solemn position,” Hua said.

Schellenberg had appealed against an original 15-year prison sentence issued in November, but the court in Liaoning province sided with prosecutors who argued at a retrial that the punishment was too light.

Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Darren Schuettler and James Dalgleish

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