A Canadian man originally given 15 years in prison for drug smuggling was sentenced to death in China on Monday after a one-day retrial, the surprising verdict coming amid growing tensions between Beijing and Ottawa after the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive last month.
Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was given the death penalty in Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in the northeast province of Liaoning after an appeals court last month agreed with prosecutors that Schellenberg’s original punishment was too lenient.
The court on Monday said Schellenberg had an “extremely large” negative impact on China and was a “core member” of an international drug ring.
The 36-year-old said he was a tourist in China when he was duped by a man he believed was a translator and got caught in the scheme to smuggle methamphetamines, the Globe and Mail reported.
“I am not a drug smuggler. I am not a drug user. I am a normal person,” he said in court Monday. “I am innocent.”
Schellenberg has 10 days to appeal his sentence, the court said in a statement, which his lawyer Zhang Dongshuo told Reuters will most likely happen.
Schellenberg was arrested in 2014 and received his initial 15-year sentence last November, months after his trial began in 2016. His case was then publicized by the Chinese press following the Dec. 1 arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on U.S. charges related to doing business with Iran.
Schellenberg’s family said they worried China would use him as a bargaining chip following Meng’s arrest.
“He’s become a pawn,” his aunt Lauri Nelson-Jones told the New York Times. “We can only guess, but that is definitely what it looks like, and that is incredibly worrisome.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he’s concerned China has chosen to “arbitrarily” apply death penalty in Schellenberg’s case.
China has vehemently protested Meng’s arrest in Canada and vowed to retaliate. At least 13 Canadian citizens were detained in China since the CFO’s arrest, the Globe and Mail reported earlier this month. Eight of the people detained have since been released.
Chinese authorities also arrested two Canadians, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman. Trudeau criticized China for “not respecting the principles of diplomatic immunity” in Kovrig’s arrest. China did not directly link the arrest to the charges against Meng, but said the men are being investigated in accordance with Chinese Law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.