The Australian man Karm Gilespie’s death sentence is diplomatic leverage deliberately created by China, a former investigator who was detained in China for two years has said.
Peter Humphrey, a former fraud investigator and foreign correspondent who was detained in China with his wife from 2013 to 2015, said it was inconceivable that the death sentence was unrelated to diplomatic tensions with Australia, and the sentence had “nothing to do with the original case against him”.
China denies Gilespie’s sentence has anything to do with the bilateral relationship, but the timing of it at a particularly low point for the two countries has prompted widespread speculation about political motivations.
On Tuesday Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, took aim at China for spreading disinformation, citing Beijing’s warnings that tourists and students should reconsider coming to Australia because of the risk of racism.
Payne said after the speech Australian consulate authorities had this week visited the detention centre where Gilespie is being held. The 53-year-old was arrested in December 2013 but his detention was not publicly known until Chinese authorities announced his death sentence on Saturday.
On Tuesday the ABC revealed that Gilespie had first faced trial in 2014, and had been awaiting the verdict and sentence for five years. He pleaded not guilty in 2014, and faced trial over the course of two split days in 2014 and 2015, the ABC reported his lawyer as saying.
“Perhaps seven years ago, they had no intention of doing what they’ve just done with Gillespie,” Humphrey told the Guardian.
“But because of what’s been going on between China and Australia in recent months, they’ve just done this. It’s got nothing to do with the original case against him.
“What they’re doing is deliberately creating a point of leverage and negotiation which they can inject into their discussions with the Australian government.”
Humphrey said this applied to similar cases including the US man Mark Swidan, sentenced to death in April 2019 amid deteriorating US-China relations, and the Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, sentenced to death for drug smuggling at a one-day retrial in January 2019.
“And, although we haven’t yet seen the two Michaels from Canada given the death sentence, don’t be surprised if we do,” Humphrey said, referring to the arrests of the former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and the businessman Michael Spavor after Canadian authorities arrested the Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
“This is the level of China’s game.”
The former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said in his memoir he had “every reason to believe” that failure to complete a proposed extradition treaty with China – which Australia pulled in 2017 – “would make it harder for us to ensure China did not impose the death penalty on Australian citizens convicted of capital offence”.
Canada has also not agreed to an extradition treaty, and Peter Dahlin, the director of Safeguard Defenders who was detained in China for his work with the rights organisation China Action, said both countries were now potentially being presented as cautionary tales for other countries thinking of refusing.
“There’s no such thing as a judicial system in China,” Dahlin said. “The timing and the outcome is predetermined, especially in high-profile cases. Whether this case is part of a political play, and I think it is, there will be no decision without approval by the CCP.”
China’s judiciary – which routinely has a 99.9% conviction rate – is widely criticised as opaque and lacking independence from the Chinese Communist party government.
In a 2019 report on capital punishment, Amnesty International said the death penalty in Chinese drug-related cases “appeared to play a central role in the middle of political stand-offs with some foreign countries”.
On Monday China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijia, said Gilespie’s case “has nothing to do with the bilateral relationship”. State media accused Australia of being “increasingly irrational” and disregarding the rule of law.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it has been providing consular assistance to Gilespie since his arrest and would continue to do so.
The Australian government routinely advocates quietly behind the scenes for citizens in legal trouble overseas, and only occasionally makes public appeals.
Dahlin said that in his experience the treatment inside detention of prisoners facing trial improved after public attention. “We’re yet to find a single case, where someone is willing to speak, who doesn’t say that,” he said.
Humphrey said detention conditions were often cramped and overcrowded, without privacy or hot water. Detainees slept and ate on the floor and had poor nutrition.
“There’s also very little opportunity to get outdoor exercise, to get fresh air and sunshine, which obviously has a further negative impact on their health,” he said.
Humphrey said detainees were also frequently denied proper access to communication and legal assistance, and Chinese authorities would often obstruct consular access.
“The Chinese side plays games by obstructing access at key stages of the development of the case against the prisoner,” he said.
The Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said governments needed to forcefully speak out and “take meaningful actions to oppose Chinese government repression”.
“Because it is increasingly not just about the rights of Chinese citizens, as more and more foreigners in China have been plunged into the black hole of the country’s criminal justice system,” she said.
Payne said consular officials had been able to visit to the detention centre where Gilespie was being held and to engage in a video conference with him on Tuesday.
“That is a very important thing and I’m very pleased that has been conveyed back to his family,” she said.
Payne said she would continue to seek that consular access, and reiterated that Australia rejected the application of the death penalty in all countries, in all circumstances. “I’m very careful and very considered about his situation,” she added
– additional reporting by Lillian Yang and AAP