Canada has formally petitioned China not to follow through with the execution of a Canadian convicted of being an accessory to drug-smuggling.

“We have already spoken with China’s ambassador to Canada and requested clemency,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday at a press conference in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.

Robert Schellenberg of Abbotsford, B.C., was sentenced to death Monday. He had previously been sentenced to 15 years in prison for the same offence, but a new trial was recently ordered.

His is the latest case in an ever-escalating diplomatic dispute between Canada and China, which began with the arrest of Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last month. Two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have since been detained in China.

Freeland said discussions were happening regularly between officials “at a number of levels” in both countries.

“Continuing that dialogue is very important. It is a complicated and difficult moment in our relationship with China,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Chinese officials accused the Canadian government of hypocrisy for updating its travel advisory to warn of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws” in China.

“We do … urge people to use a high degree of caution before travelling to China,” Freeland said Tuesday.

A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry likened Canada’s warning to a thief yelling “stop the thief,” saying Canada’s arrest of Meng shows that Canada is the country where foreign nationals face greater danger.

“The Canadian government really needs to issue advice to its citizens, not for any possible danger in travelling to China, but to warn them against involving in such grave crime as drug trafficking,” Hua Chunying said at a press conference, according to an English-language translation from the ministry.

China also followed suit with a travel advisory of its own, warning its citizens that they should “fully assess the risks of going to Canada for tourism” and may find themselves “arbitrarily detained at the request of a third nation” in an apparent reference to Meng, who is the chief financial officer of tech behemoth Huawei.

Meng’s arrest in Vancouver, apparently in response to an extradition request from the United States government, sparked the diplomatic dispute that saw Canadian citizens Kovrig and Spavor taken into custody in China, where they have remained ever since.

Who is Robert Schellenberg?

Chinese officials have denied that Schellenberg’s retrial was politically motivated, framing it instead as part of the country’s hardline stance on drug crime.

According to the Chinese courts, Schellenberg was part of an operation to transport 222 kilograms of methamphetamine from a warehouse in China to a destination in Australia.

Although China does not publicize data around executions, it is believed that nearly 20 foreigners were put to death for offences related to drug-smuggling between 2009 and 2015. Chinese citizens found guilty of similar crimes are executed as well, Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch told CTV News Channel.

Schellenberg’s family said Tuesday that it wants all Canadians “to stand with us and pray” for his safe return.

“The Schellenberg family cares deeply about our Robert who is being held under very difficult circumstances in China,” the family said Tuesday in a statement.

Family members had been in touch with their local MP, Conservative Ed Fast, and wanted to see the federal government “make every effort to secure fair treatment for Robert,” the statement said.

Freeland said she had spoken to Schellenberg’s father on Monday in what she described as a “very emotional conversation.”

CTV Vancouver reports that a man with the same name and age as Schellenberg has served jail time for four drug-related convictions in B.C. in the past, three of which were for drug possession for the purpose of trafficking.

International war of words

Freeland said Tuesday that Canada considers the death penalty to be an “inappropriate and inhumane” punishment for any offence, and stressed that Canada has received support from the United States, United Kingdom, France and other countries during the dispute.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke Monday with the leaders of Argentina and New Zealand. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the cases of Kovrig, Spavor and Schellenberg made up the bulk of the agenda in both calls.

Hua said that Trudeau should “respect the rule of law, respect China’s judicial sovereignty, correct mistakes and stop making irresponsible remarks.” She called on the Canadian government to release Meng.

Wheels are also in motion for political action on the domestic front. On Thursday the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a special meeting in Ottawa to discuss the possibility of calling Canada's ambassador to China John McCallum to testify on the current state of China-Canada relations.

Canada and China have been working together in recent years to boost tourism activity between the two countries. Statistics Canada says more than 663,000 Chinese travellers visited Canada in the first 10 months of 2018, up from about 620,000 during the same time period in 2017.

Hua stressed that China “remains open to and welcomes people from all countries, including from Canada,” as long as they obey the law.

“The facts have proven that China is a safe place,” she said, according to the translation.

Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said any Canadians already in China should try to maintain a “low profile” due to the ongoing tensions.

“You do not want the government to find any excuse or any opportunities to put another Canadian in the spotlight,” she said.

Human rights groups critical

Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday that Schellenberg’s plight was attracting global attention.

“I think people around the world are horrified by this case because it’s such an incredibly crass, politicized and really grotesque response to a diplomatic spat,” she told CTV News Channel.

Richardson said Human Rights Watch has long been concerned China’s justice system places defence lawyers at “notorious disadvantages” and is designed to serve political interests.

“It is a profoundly politicized system that we generally believe can’t possibly deliver on fair trial rights or real justice,” she said.

Schellenberg’s sentence has also been criticized by Amnesty International, which said execution was not an appropriate sentence for a drug-related offence.

"China's death penalty system is shrouded in secrecy, which contributes to why many will be questioning the timing of this decision,” William Nee of Amnesty International said in a statement.

“We have seen before that in highly politicized cases the trial is often a mere spectacle with the outcome already decided.”