BEIJING — China’s diplomatic clash with Canada reached its highest stakes on Monday, when a Canadian man stood for retrial in northeast China on a drug smuggling charge that could lead to his execution.
Last month a court ordered the Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, to be retried after he appealed a 15-year prison sentence for smuggling methamphetamines. Against the backdrop of increased tensions between China and Canada, that court sided with prosecutors who argued that the initial sentence was too light and he should be tried a second time in order to face a stiffer sentence.
In China, that could mean the death penalty.
Mr. Schellenberg’s unusually swift appeal hearing and retrial came after the Chinese government was incensed by the December arrest in Vancouver, British Columbia, of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer.
Mr. Schellenberg’s family fears that he has become a bargaining chip for Beijing to seek Ms. Meng’s release, said his aunt, Lauri Nelson-Jones.
“He’s become a pawn,” she said. “We can only guess, but that is definitely what it looks like, and that is incredibly worrisome. We’re just worried that it won’t be a fair trial or a fair outcome.”
Those men have been accused of “endangering national security,” a sweeping charge that can include espionage. The police, however, have not announced any specific allegations against them while they remain in secret detention, denied visits from lawyers and family members.
Some foreign legal experts have said China’s swift action in all three cases appeared intended to pressure Canada to free Ms. Meng and return her to China. The prospect that Mr. Schellenberg could receive the death penalty created a potent threat to use against Canada, they said.
“Sending the case back for retrial gives China the opportunity to threaten death and to drag out that threat for as long as necessary,” Donald Clarke, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who is an expert on Chinese law, wrote in a commentary last week for Lawfare, a national security blog.
“The case appears to reinforce the message, previously suggested by the detentions of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, that China views the holding of human hostages as an acceptable way to conduct diplomacy,” Professor Clarke wrote.
Mr. Schellenberg stood on Monday for his latest trial in Dalian, a port city in northeast China. There was no sign when the court would end proceedings or deliver a verdict. A verdict and sentencing may come at a later hearing.
Before his arrest in 2014, Mr. Schellenberg, 36, had been an adventurous traveler who used earnings from working in Alberta’s oil fields to pay for his travels in Asia, Ms. Nelson-Jones said by telephone.
Mr. Schellenberg grew up in Abbotsford, British Columbia, surrounded by a large extended family. He kept in irregular contact with his family as he roamed around Asia, especially Thailand, Ms. Nelson-Jones said.
“He called and told his dad — my brother — that he was heading off to China, and it was just like, ‘O.K., whatever,’” she said. About a month later, Mr. Schellenberg’s family learned that he had been arrested.
“The next call that my brother got was from the consulate, from Global Affairs Canada, telling him that Robert was detained,” Ms. Nelson-Jones said.
After his arrest, Mr. Schellenberg was held for 15 months before his first trial, and it took another 32 months before a court declared him guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for his role in a failed attempt to smuggle drugs from China to Australia.
The tempo of Mr. Schellenberg’s case has accelerated since Ms. Meng’s arrest. She is out on bail and under house arrest in Canada until the courts there decide whether she can be extradited to the United States. American prosecutors have accused her of fraudulent bank transactions related to business deals with Iran that violated United States sanctions.
At Mr. Schellenberg’s appeal hearing last month, prosecutors said that emerging evidence indicated he had played a bigger role in a drug trafficking network, and so his initial sentence was too light.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied that Mr. Schellenberg’s trial and the arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have anything to do with Ms. Meng’s arrest. At a news briefing on Friday, a spokesman for the ministry, Lu Kang, said critics should not undermine Chinese law for political purposes.
“If there are no violations, I do hope that these people won’t just for their own sake politicize legal issues,” Mr. Lu said.
But Chinese officials have diluted that argument by suggesting that their government was engaged in “defense” after the arrest of Ms. Meng. In an op-ed for a Canadian newspaper last week, the Chinese ambassador to Ottawa, Lu Shaye, said that the calls to release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor amounted to an assertion of “Western egotism and white supremacy.”
“They said that by arresting two Canadian citizens as retaliation for Canada’s detention of Meng, China was bullying Canada,” Mr. Lu wrote. “To those people, China’s self-defense is an offense to Canada.”
Professor Clarke, the expert on Chinese law, said the swiftness with which Mr. Schellenberg’s retrial was ordered indicated that politics had come into play.
Ms. Nelson-Jones, Mr. Schellenberg’s aunt, said there had been poor translation at his first trial, frustrating his efforts to defend himself. Mr. Schellenberg’s family did not have a realistic hope of attending his latest hearing, because the Intermediate People’s Court of Dalian announced the date just four days in advance.
“We’re hopeful that it’s going to be a better situation regarding the translation,” she said.