The Chinese government has defended the death sentence handed down to an Australian citizen, saying the verdict has “nothing to do with” the two countries’ ongoing diplomatic row.
Karm Gilespie, a former actor, was arrested in southern China in 2013 and accused of attempting to board an international flight out of Guangzhou airport with 7.5kg of methamphetamine in his check-in luggage.
On Saturday a court in Guangzhou announced that Gilespie had been sentenced to death, and ordered the confiscation of all his personal property.
Deaths sentences, particularly for drug offences, are not in themselves an unusual occurrence in China. According to Amnesty International, the country is believed to execute thousands of people every year by firing squad, though the exact number is classified as a state secret.
But the announcement of Gilespie’s sentence comes at a time when relations between Australia and China are especially strained, after the Australian government joined demands for an independent international investigation into the source of the Covid-19 pandemic in China. China has responded by warning its citizens that it may be unsafe for them to travel to Australia to study, suggesting they could be targeted in hate crimes.
The spat has badly damaged trade between the two nations, with China banning beef imports from Australia's largest abattoirs and effectively ending trade in Australian barley through crippling tariffs last month.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular briefing on Monday that the death sentence was unrelated to those tensions.
“Applying the death penalty to drug crimes that cause extremely serious harm can help in deterring and preventing drug crimes,” Zhao said.
Australia should “earnestly respect China's judicial sovereignty. And the above-mentioned case has nothing to do with bilateral relations,” he added.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison told parliament on Monday that foreign minister Marise Payne and other Australian officials had raised Gilespie’s case with their Chinese counterparts on a number of occasions, and that efforts to engage with Beijing on the matter continued.
"I and the government are very sad and concerned that an Australian citizen, Mr Karm Gilespie, has been sentenced to death in China," Mr Morrison told parliament, reading from a prepared statement.
"We will continue to provide Mr Gilespie with consular assistance and engage China on his case. Our thoughts are with him, his family and his loved ones," he said.
Speaking on Sky News Australia on Sunday, trade minister Simon Birmingham called Gilespie’s case “very distressing” but warned against linking it to the bilateral trade spat. “We shouldn’t necessarily view it as such,” he said.
“This is a reminder to all Australians ... that Australian laws don’t apply overseas, that other countries have much harsher penalties, particularly in relation to matters such as drug trafficking,” he said.
Gilespie is one of 62 Australians in detention in China, with most of them arrested on drug trafficking and fraud charges, according to The Australian newspaper.
The prisoners include Henry Chin, 40, who was sentenced to death in 2005 for attempting to send 270 grams of methamphetamine to Australia a year earlier.
Gilespie has 10 days to appeal his sentence. The former actor made occasional appearances as a character in the popular Australian television crime drama "Blue Healers" in the 1990s and toured the country performing a one-man stage show he wrote about Australian poet Banjo Paterson before reinventing himself as an entrepreneur and motivational speaker.
Singapore-based business coach Roger J Hamilton said on social media that Gilespie was a former student who had been tricked into smuggling drugs in handbags that he was told were presents for partners of Chinese businessmen in Australia.
Gilespie’s family said in a statement that they were “very saddened by the situation”. “We also request that friends and acquaintances of Karm refrain from speculating on his current circumstances, which we do not believe assists his case.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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