China’s death-threat diplomacy

Last week I wrote about China’s hostage diplomacy. Now the Chinese government has forced me to use a new headline. On Monday, January 14, Canadian Robert Schellenberg was sentenced by the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in China to death on drug smuggling charges. I explained in last week’s post why there is every reason to suspect that China is using Schellenberg as a human pawn to pressure Canada into releasing Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive detained in Vancouver pending extradition to the United States. Monday’s death sentence just reinforces that suspicion.

I do not know whether Schellenberg is guilty of what he is charged with. But I do know that before Meng Wanzhou’s detention, the original trial court heard the case and then thought about it for over two and half years before deciding that a sentence of fifteen years in prison was an appropriate punishment. Whatever you might say about that delay, it does not suggest haste and carelessness. After Meng’s detention, we see, in addition to the unusual circumstances I mentioned in my post, a speedy retrial and a speedy sentencing: the court heard evidence for about ten hours, and the same court that had previously taken 32 months to reach a decision this time returned with a decision in only one hour. It just doesn’t look good.

What’s next? Schellenberg has ten days within which to lodge an appeal—to the same Liaoning High People’s Court that rejected his first appeal and sent his case back for retrial, with the suggestion that a heavier sentence would be appropriate. The appeal could be heard quickly; Schellenberg’s previous appeal was requested in November and heard in December. In this case, because the death penalty is involved, the High Court can take up to two months instead of the usual one month to finish the case, starting from the date it receives the appeal. (Schellenberg’s lawyer has announced Schellenberg’s intention to appeal.) Further extensions of time are possible, but only with the approval of the Supreme People’s Court.

Assuming that the High Court upholds the death sentence, the next stage is mandatory review by the Supreme People’s Court. This review procedure carries no mandatory or even advisory time limits; the court can take as long as it wishes. It can decide to uphold the death penalty, to reduce the sentence, or to send the case back for retrial. Once it decides to uphold the death penalty, however, execution is supposed to take place within seven days of the lower court’s being notified of the decision.

My prediction is that the Supreme People’s Court will sit on the review decision for as long as Meng’s fate remains undetermined.