Australian man could face death penalty in China drug trial

GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - An Australian man tearfully pleaded for his life in a Chinese court on Thursday, blaming his plight on a shadowy Sydney gang leader, as he faced judges on charges of attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of drugs.

Police escort Peter Gardner as he enters court in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, May 7, 2015. REUTERS/Alex Lee

The trial follows Indonesia’s high-profile executions last week of two convicted Australian drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, alongside six others from several countries, despite international criticism of its use of the death penalty.

The hearing in China’s southern city of Guangzhou ended with a submission by New Zealand-born Peter Gardner that he had been duped by an intermediary who headed a large Australian gang.

Gardner, 26, was arrested at the city’s international airport last November, carrying bags of nearly 30 kg (66 lb) of methamphetamine, known as “ice”.

As his parents and New Zealand diplomats watched, the handcuffed Gardner told his three judges he was innocent.

“Without a doubt this is the biggest mistake of my life,” Gardner said. When he saw the ice being ripped from the bags, he added, “My heart dropped.”

Trying to demonstrate his innocence, Gardner said the drugs could be worth A$6 million ($4.8 million), and he had no access to that level of funding.

Identifying his intermediary only as “James”, he offered to help authorities bring the man to justice, saying the syndicate he led engaged in the smuggling of drugs and firearms.

The public prosecutor at the trial dismissed Gardner’s testimony as flawed and inconsistent, however, saying, “His behavior is against common sense.” A verdict and sentencing could take weeks, or even months, Craig Tuck, Gardner’s New Zealand lawyer, said after the hearing.

Gardner holds dual Australian and New Zealand nationality but entered China on his New Zealand passport, for what he said was intended to be a pick-up of athletic performance enhancing drugs, arranged by the Sydney intermediary.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s office said he stated his country’s opposition to the death penalty when he visited China last week, but New Zealand would neither comment nor intervene further on a judicial matter in another country.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “The trafficking of drugs is a very serious crime that is terribly harmful to society and we resolutely oppose it and deal with it in accordance with the law.

“As for the death penalty, it is used very cautiously in China,” she told reporters.

China blamed a rise in violent crime last year on a surge in drug smuggling from Southeast Asia.

Additional reporting by Gyles Beckford in Wellington and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Greg Torode and Clarence Fernandez