As It Happens·Q&A

There's still hope for a Canadian man sentenced to death in China, says advocate

There’s still a slight chance that Canadian Robert Schellenberg could be spared his death sentence in China, says a detainees' rights advocate who has been advising the family.

Robert Schellenberg has a ‘1 in 10 chance’ of having his verdict overturned, estimates John Kamm

Canadian Robert Schellenberg's death sentence been upheld by a Chinese high court, but it still has to be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People's Court before it can be carried out. (CCTV/The Associated Press)

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There's still a slight chance that Canadian Robert Schellenberg could be spared his death sentence in China, according to a detainees' rights advocate who has been advising the family.

Schellenberg of Abbotsford, B.C., was arrested in 2014 and sentenced in 2018 to 15 years for drug smuggling, a charge he denies. He appealed, but an intermediate court sentenced him to death in January 2019. On Tuesday, a Chinese high court upheld the death sentence

The decision comes one day before a different Chinese court is due to rule on the case of fellow Canadian Michael Spavor, who is accused of spying. It also comes as lawyers representing Meng Wanzhou, the detained chief financial officer of telecom giant Huawei, make a final push to convince a B.C. Supreme Court not to extradite her to the United States, where she faces charges linked to violating sanctions.

Schellenberg, meanwhile, has one last chance. His case has been sent to the Supreme People's Court court for review, as is required by law before any death sentences can be carried out.

John Kamm is the head of the non-profit Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for at-risk detainees in China. He says his organization is aware of 1,300 death sentence reviews sent to the Supreme People's Court since 2007, and roughly 10 per cent of those were overturned. If that happens for Schellenberg, his case would be sent back to the lower court for retrial.

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation.

As I understand it, you exchanged emails with Mr. Schellenberg's family before and after this judgment. Are you able to share what those conversations have been like?

The first conversation yesterday before the judgment was released was, in fact, about the impending judgment. I was told that the family had been informed last Wednesday — in other words, seven days before the judgment was rendered. And that's not uncommon.

This morning, we exchanged emails, and basically the gist of that email and subsequent emails was that although this outcome was not unexpected — they expected this, as did I — that doesn't change, of course, the fact that this was a cruel blow delivered to the family.

Apart from condemning this verdict, which the government of Canada has done, what more do you think Ottawa needs to be doing now?

I think they have to keep this very much on the front burner of Canada-China relations. It should be raised at every level, at every chance that presents itself. 

Mr. Schellenger's lawyer will be interacting with the Supreme People's Court. It's known as the first court. They're the ones that handle death sentences. So I would raise the alarm. I would continue to reference it, condemn it. I would seek meetings with the Chinese government at senior levels, which I'm sure is taking place.

I don't know beyond that what can be done. One must impress upon the Chinese government how serious this judgment is, and without being, shall we say, overly confrontational ... warn of serious consequences.

Since the United States has taken an interest in the fates of Canadian citizens, I would also try to get the U.S. involved, right up to the president, Joe Biden. Joe Biden himself is against capital punishment.

Justice minister is questioned about Chinese court rejecting Canadian man's appeal

2 years ago
Duration 1:01
Minister David Lametti speaks with reporters about Canadian Robert Schellenberg, who faces the death sentence in China.

But now that it's gone this far, what could China do here and still save face?

In 2007, China's Supreme People's Court resumed the power of final review.

We have a death penalty log, and we are by no means tracking all death sentences, but we have tracked, shall we say, more than 1,000. And according to our estimate, roughly 10 per cent of those hearings, those reviews, resulted in the judgment being overturned.

So, you can look at it this way: There's a one in 10 chance that this verdict will be overturned. 

It should be stressed to the Chinese government and to the supreme court that Canada is well aware that judgments can be overturned, they have been overturned in around 10 per cent of the cases according to estimates, and, of course, express the sincere hope that Mr. Schellenberg's judgment will be overturned.

Meng Wanzhou is seen outside B.C. Supreme Court during a break at her extradition hearing. The Huawei executive is charged with fraud and conspiracy in New York. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

What do you think China will want in return, though, from Canada or the United States?

I think China has made that quite clear, not only with this case, but with the cases of the two Michaels [Canadian detainees in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig]. 

You can see that the day that the family was informed, last Wednesday, is the very day that the extradition hearings for Ms. Meng commenced. So I don't think that juxtaposition was coincidental.

Short of ending the extradition process or releasing her from house arrest, you know, will China be satisfied with anything less than that?

I have no idea. Probably not. They're playing a very, very tough game. And in case you or your listeners haven't noticed, the milk of human kindness is not flowing from Beijing these days.

Meng Wanzhou's court case is ongoing in British Columbia this week. And Canada's ambassador to China has said he does not think it's a coincidence either that we're seeing these rulings at the same time, as you've said, sir. 

Another court is due to rule on the case of another Canadian, Michael Spavor, as early as tomorrow. He has been accused of spying, as you know. What are you expecting to see there?

Very hard to say. You know, espionage carries the possibility of a death sentence. I don't think that that's what's going to happen. But, you know, it is not outside the realm of possibility.

I am hoping for a light sentence, by which I mean probably three to five years…. Ten to 12 years for espionage is not uncommon. 

Bear in mind, in the Chinese system, you get credit for time served. So .. if, say, it's [five] years … you're looking at possibly a bit more than ... two years plus. I think, frankly, that's the best that can be hoped for. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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