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International Relations

China and Canada slap on travel warnings as tensions mount

Ottawa asks for clemency for Canadian sentenced to death

China and Canada are both urging their citizens to exercise caution when traveling to the other country.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China and Canada have warned their citizens about traveling to the other country in an escalating diplomatic feud after a Canadian was sentenced to death for drug smuggling by a Chinese court on Monday.

The Canadian Foreign Ministry updated its advisory for China on Monday, adding a warning on the "risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws" and harsh penalties for drug-related offenses. It did not, however, raise the overall risk level attributed to China, urging Canadians to "exercise a high degree of caution" in the country -- the second-lowest of four tiers of severity.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, for its part, urged its citizens on Tuesday to exercise caution when traveling to Canada. Certain Chinese state-run companies are already holding off on business trips to the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.

Many Canadians believe that the retrial of the Canadian man, ordered shortly after the arrest of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in November, was intended as a way of adding diplomatic pressure on Ottawa. The subsequent travel warnings by both countries are likely to add fuel to the diplomatic dispute.

In November, the Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, was sentenced to 15 years for drug smuggling. But Chinese prosecutors demanded a retrial, resulting in Monday's death sentence.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday that Ottawa has formally asked for clemency for Shellenberg. While acknowledging that the situation with China is "difficult," Freeland said "We have ongoing and energetic contacts with a number of people in China." 

"It is of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies, that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply a death penalty," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Monday.

China has brushed aside criticism from Canada. Schellenberg attempted to smuggle about 222 kg of methamphetamines, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chungying told reporters Tuesday. "The prosecutors made all his criminal facts clear with concrete and adequate evidence," she said. 

"The true spirit of the rule of law implies that everyone is equal before the law," Hua said, adding that  China is "strongly dissatisfied" with Canadian comments that ignore this principle. She also dismissed speculation that Schellenberg's sentence is linked to the countries' feud over Meng's arrest, calling it a "malicious slander and unjustifiable accusation."

China has harsh penalties for drug crimes, with the potential for execution for smuggling just 50 grams of methamphetamines. But Canada has abolished capital punishment, and sentencing Schellenberg in a retrial has only inflamed the reaction. The incident could further alienate Trudeau, who initially wanted closer ties with China.

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