The Former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said in an interview he was personally involved in steps taken by the embassy and the Canadian government, including personally delivering a letter Harper wrote seeking to prevent the execution of two Canadians of Chinese origin. Saint-Jacques recalls it occurred in late 2014 or early 2015, in separate drug trafficking cases in Guangdong province.
“I think what we just succeeded in doing was delay their execution by maybe one year.”
That’s cause for alarm as Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg faces execution by a Chinese justice system that had previously sentenced him to 15 years in jail on charges of smuggling 222 kilograms of crystal meth. A Chinese appeal court had ordered the sentence reviewed in late December, and after a one-day hearing the prosecution request to toughen the sentence was granted. Schellenberg, reported to have prior drug convictions in B.C., now has 10 days to file an appeal.
Harper took up their cases personally during a visit to China in a meeting with President Xi Jinping, who Saint-Jacques said told the Canadian leader China regards “drug trafficking as a very serious crime and they were following Chinese law.” Harper travelled to China in November 2014.
Harper’s letter was sent weeks after the visit, the day before the scheduled execution of one man, but was to no avail, said Saint-Jacques. He said Canadian officials were allowed one last consular visit, but the execution eventually went ahead, with the second execution occurring within weeks as well, he said. Saint-Jacques could not recall the full names of either man, nor are there any records of such cases in English-language Canadian media.
Global Affairs Canada did not confirm details of Saint-Jacques’ statements when first contacted but acknowledged late Monday that executions did occur in roughly that time period. The Star was unable to independently verify any other details.
The revelation was one of a number of alarming developments Monday.
The Canadian government warned of new travel risks for Canadians.
Ottawa said while the risk level for travel to and within China was unchanged at “high,” it added a new warning: “We encourage Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
Canada’s embassy in Beijing emailed Canadians registered in the country to be aware of the new risks, asking them to update the embassy if they leave China.
The Canadian government also made clear its concern over the fate of other Canadians now facing the Chinese justice system.
On Monday, the Chinese government formally dismissed Trudeau’s claim of diplomatic immunity for a Canadian former diplomat, Michael Kovrig, arrested by China last month.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, said Kovrig “is not entitled to diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by any measure.
“He is not currently a diplomat. Michael Kovrig used an ordinary passport and a business visa to come to China.”
Kovrig was on leave from Global Affairs Canada to work for a non-governmental peace advocacy group, the International Crisis Group. Arrested by China after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on Dec. 1, Kovrig faces vague allegations of engaging in activities that endangered Chinese state security. A second Canadian, businessman Michael Spavor, was arrested last month as well, and faces similar unspecified charges.
Trudeau reacted Monday with dismay to the latest developments in Schellenberg’s case and tied it to his concern about China’s actions in the other cases.
“It is of extreme concern to us as a government as it should be to all our international friends and allies that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply death penalty in cases facing – as in this case facing a Canadian.”
Trudeau told reporters he would seek clemency for Schellenberg, speaking after he shuffled his cabinet Monday morning. As part of that shuffle, Trudeau moved his justice minister out of the portfolio responsible for handling the U.S. extradition request of Meng, and installed a legal expert in comparative and public law, David Lametti.
Meng’s arrest infuriated the Chinese government, which has accused Canada of acting arbitrarily in the matter.
China dismissed Canada’s explanation that it was obliged to act under a bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S., with its ambassador in Ottawa publicly accusing Canada’s government last week of double standards driven by “white supremacy.”
Chunying fired a shot at the Canadian government’s insistence that Trudeau is bound to respect the independence of a Canadian court now seized with the Meng case.
“As to the Canadian side’s claim that all countries should respect judicial independence, I believe this is quite right if only the Canadian side itself could first prove its judicial independence with concrete actions.”
Saint-Jacques, who was Ottawa’s envoy from 2012 to 2016 and worked with Kovrig, said in an interview there is little doubt that with the men’s arrests and Schellenberg’s suddenly toughened sentence, China “is sending a clear message” to Canada.
He said the government needs to “prepare a Plan A and a Plan B in case this further escalates because this problem is going to be with us for some time,” said Saint-Jacques.
Saint-Jacques predicted Meng’s legal defence team will try to block the U.S. request and draw out the legal arguments for years, and he encouraged the Trudeau government to keep up the international pressure because China cares about its international reputation, even if it does not care about Canada.
Trudeau said Canada would continue to enlist the support of its international friends and allies to object to China’s actions.
Trudeau said all governments should be worried about China’s “arbitrary” moves.
“We are extremely concerned as should be all countries around the world that China is choosing to act arbitrarily whether it is in application of its own justice system to its own citizens and people around the world or whether it’s in its choice to not respect longstanding practices and principles in regard to diplomatic immunity.
“This is something that everyone should be alert to and certainly something we as a government take very seriously and will continue to engage strongly with China on.”
Several governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the European Union, and Australia have already stepped up to express concern about China’s arrests of Kovrig and Spavor.
Schellenberg’s aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones, in an email to the Star’s Vancouver reporter Perrin Grauer, said “All I can really say at this moment is, it is our worst case fear confirmed. 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. We anxiously anticipate any news regarding an appeal.”
“Canada seeks clemency for all Canadians facing the death penalty in foreign jurisdictions. We have sought clemency in the case of Mr. Schellenberg and will continue to do so,” said Global Affairs spokesman Guillaume Bérubé.
Global Affairs says about 200 are currently detained in China “for a variety of infractions and continue to face legal proceedings. Many of these Canadians are out on bail or serving probation,” while a handful are in custody.
Alex Neve, of Amnesty International Canada, said Monday the sentence against Schellenberg “was imposed after a rushed retrial,” and called on the Chinese government to abandon its plans to carry out the death sentence.
Neve called on the Canadian government “to intervene at very senior levels, including the Prime Minister, to press that request.”
Neve said the fact the Schellenberg death penalty “has arisen in the context of the strained relationship between China and Canada arising from Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant, adds greater urgency to the need for immediate and concerted effort on the part of the Canadian government to convince Chinese authorities to overturn the death penalty in this case.”
John Kamm, head of Dui Hua, a San Francisco-based non-governmental group that advocates for political prisoners in China, said in an interview that Schellenberg’s aunt has asked for his help in advocating for the Canadian man.
He said his organization is aware of 19 foreigners, but no North Americans among them, who have been executed by China from 2009 to present.
Kamm said the best thing that could happen now for Schellenberg is for an appeal to be filed, and “a cooling off period between the two countries,” the sooner the better.
However, Trudeau’s comments, and Ottawa’s travel advisory update, signaled a distinct shift in tone from the Liberal government towards China.
In December, Trudeau told reporters he has learned since taking power that it does no good to “politicize” or “amplify” consular cases because it can actually hinder what he said is the ultimate goal of securing Canadians’ release from detention and their safe return home.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc