OTTAWA – Two Canadians have been sentenced to death in a Chinese court, renewing fears that heightened tensions between Ottawa and Beijing could result in harsh treatment of Canadian citizens in China.
Ye Jianhui and Xu Weihong were both sentenced to death in separate drug cases this week in southern China’s Guangdong Province. A total of four Canadians have been sentenced to death in Chinese courts in the past two years.
During these two years, relations between the ruling Communist Party in China and the Canadian government have deteriorated following the arrest and detention of Huawei leader Meng Wanzhou, who faces extradition to the United States for fraud.
But before connecting Ye and Lu’s plight to icy international relations, an expert in Chinese law and politics warns that very little is known about their alleged crimes.
“It’s only natural for people to make the connection,” said Wei Cui, director of the Center for Asian Legal Studies at the University of British Columbia.
“What we can say is that in general people should be concerned about the Chinese criminal justice system because it is not transparent… Whatever these people have done, we should be concerned about the process that they crossed.
“But what is clear is that foreigners are still subjected to this type of criminal process in China, so it is not clear that we are even seeing an increase in prosecutions (against Canadians).
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Friday condemned China’s use of the death penalty. But unlike the detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the Canadian government has not alleged that Chinese authorities acted “arbitrarily” against Ye and Lu – at least not yet.
Here’s what we know, and what we don’t know, about the situation.
What is the case against Ye and Xu?
China’s generally opaque court system has released few details in either case. What is known about the allegations has been gleaned from Chinese media reports.
Xu allegedly manufactured ketamine, a strong pain reliever, by storing ingredients and tools to make the drug in October 2016. According to media reports, Chinese police seized 120 kilograms of the drug from Xu’s home and another address.
Yangcheng Evening News reported that Ye and an accomplice also manufactured and transported drugs between May 2015 and January 2016. Police seized approximately 218 kilograms of MDMA from a room used by Ye and Lu Hangchang.
Police seized approximately 218 kilograms of white crystals infused with the synthetic drug MDMA from a room used by the two, and found an additional 9.84 grams of the drug in bags and residences used by Lu and others, according to the newspaper.
Their death sentences will automatically be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court, Cui said.
China generally has stiff penalties for drug offenses. The country also frequently hand down death sentences. Although official figures are not released, Amnesty International estimates that China executes more than 1,000 people each year.
What about the other two Canadians on death row?
Fan Wei, another Canadian citizen, was sentenced to death in April 2019 for allegedly participating in a multinational drug smuggling case.
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Robert Schellenberg was initially given a lighter sentence for alleged drug smuggling. But after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei’s Meng in Vancouver in 2018, Schellenberg was retried and sentenced to death.
Cui noted that, unlike the Schellenberg case, there was no indication of any judicial irregularities in the cases against Ye and Xu.
“In the case of the two Michaels, as well as in the Schellenberg case, we have reason to believe that this is specifically retaliation in Canada,” he said.
How did the Canadian government react?
“Let me say this: Canada opposes the death penalty. We oppose it clearly and always, everywhere in the world. We believe this is a cruel and inhuman punishment, and we are making it clear to everyone we talk to around the world, ”Freeland said at a press conference on Friday.
“We have made this clear in our conversations with China, and we will continue to do so.”
His comments echoed Global Affairs Minister François-Phillipe Champagne, who told the CBC on Thursday that Canada “(opposes) the death penalty every step of the way.
“We have said this over and over again to the Chinese government and will continue to do so,” Champagne said.
What about the Chinese government?
At a press conference on Friday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked whether the death sentences had anything to do with cold diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Wang Wenbin replied that China is “a country governed by the rule of law, and its judicial system handles cases independently in strict accordance with the law,” according to a transcript of the press conference.
But he did not waste an opportunity to add that Canada is “well aware” of China’s anger at the arrest of Meng Wanzhou.
“The Canadian side knows very well what is the crux of the matter. We urge the Canadian side to take immediate and effective steps to correct its mistakes and to make concrete efforts to get bilateral relations back on track.