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PMO's Silence On China's Human Rights Record Troubling: Critics

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office won’t say whether it trusts the Chinese judicial system, even as it opens up discussions on a possible extradition treaty with the country.

“You’re asking me to criticize the Chinese system,” Trudeau’s spokesman Cameron Ahmad told The Huffington Post Canada this week. “I’m not going to go down that road.”

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, Aug. 31. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Canada and China have “different systems of law and order,” Ahmad said, declining to outline their differences. “We are not going to start criticizing other countries’ systems,” he said.

“We have our own standards. We have high standards with respect to the rule of law and our own system … and we maintain those in discussion with any country.”

“What’s important,” Ahmad added, “is we now have a dialogue where we can discuss these things. That’s what is important.”

Earlier this month, Trudeau’s office acknowledged it is pursuing talks with China over a possible extradition treaty.

"I’m personally very distressed by this attitude."— Charles Burton, associate professor

But the PMO’s unwillingness to reflect any concerns about the Chinese legal system — where the conviction rate is above 99 per cent and there is overwhelming evidence of torture, mistreatment and false confessions — raises concerns among some observers who fear Ottawa is putting a priority on better business ties with Canada’s second-largest trading partner over the human rights of potential Chinese dissidents.

“I’m personally very distressed by this attitude,” said Charles Burton, an associate professor at Brock University and a well-known expert on Canada-China relations and human rights.

“I just can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be prepared to reflect a well-accepted norm that has been reported by reliable NGOs, such as Amnesty International, and through a mass of other evidence, that the Chinese judiciary does not maintain a standard that allows due process of law and the assumption of innocence,” he said. “And then, there is the other issue, which is the mistreatment in interrogation, the use of torture for forced confessions, pervasive problems of false confessions … that would really be a big concern to us in sending anyone back.”

PMO 'not facing the reality': expert

The Prime Minister’s Office is “not facing the reality,” Burton said.

“There is no independence of the judiciary, the courts are under the supervision of the politics and law committees of the Communist party … and so it’s clear that in political cases — even if, based on due process of law, the person would in fact be found not guilty — if the party has decided the result of the case, then it’s the way it’s going to rule.”

If China wants one of its citizens back, Burton added, it’s unlikely that person will have an opportunity to present evidence that he or she hasn’t committed the alleged crimes.

Death penalty used for many crimes in China

China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, said Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

Amnesty International stopped providing estimates of how many people are executed each year because it felt the figures provided by the Chinese government are nowhere close to the truth, Neve said.

The death penalty is used, Neve said, for a dizzying array of crimes — for not only murders and heinous crimes but a wide sweep of offences, including economic crimes.

Those are “exactly the kinds of things that we know the Chinese government will very determinedly be raising in extradition cases.”

“How Canada could possibly obtain reliable assurances that the death penalty won’t be used, when everything about the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy, is a complete mystery,” he said.

Neve said he is concerned Canada is going to great lengths not to antagonize the Chinese. Canada does criticize other countries’ judicial systems, he noted.

"How Canada could possibly obtain reliable assurances that the death penalty won’t be used, when everything about the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy, is a complete mystery."
— Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada

Every fall, for several years now, Canada introduces a motion at the United Nations condemning Iran’s human rights abuses.

Last year’s motion expressed, among other things, serious concern at the alarming high frequency of and increase in carrying out of the death penalty. It asked the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to ensure no one is subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and urged the government to uphold procedural guarantees to ensure fair trials, and to address the poor conditions of its prisons.

Jia Wang, the acting director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, told HuffPost she believes Canada can sign a treaty with China and not compromise its human rights standards.

Canada has a number of extradition treaties with countries that don’t necessarily reflect our judicial standards, she said, listing Mexico and Zimbabwe as well as the United States, Japan and the Maldives — countries that also practice capital punishment.

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Li Keqiang and Justin Trudeau conduct a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sept. 22. (Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)

“Zimbabwe is not a country that we hold in high regard in terms of upholding human rights,” she said.

Last week, Trudeau stood side by side with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang when both were asked what assurances China could give Canada that it will not torture prisoners or apply arbitrary justice if Canada signs an extradition treaty.

“I cannot promise 100 per cent that every link, that every region, that every person and every time they [will] receive fully fair humanitarian treatment,” an interpreter quoted Li as saying.

Once a problem is found, Li said, China would “deal with it very seriously.”

"I cannot promise 100 per cent that every link, that every region, that every person and every time they [will] receive fully fair humanitarian treatment."— Chinese Premier Li Keqiang

The Chinese premier said China’s use of the death penalty is consistent with his country’s “national condition” and is necessary to deal with crimes, especially violent crimes.

“If we abolish the death penalty, more innocent people will probably lose their lives,” he told reporters.

“The Chinese law clearly provides that there must be strict compliance with judicial procedures and there shall be no torture of the people concerned, including suspects and sentenced people,” Li said. “Humanitarian treatment must be applied to those people…. And the judicial and law enforcement authorities of China follow this rule very strictly.”

Trudeau told reporters that both he and Li “recognize that Canada and China have different systems of law and order and different approaches, and it'll be very important that any future agreement be based on reflecting the realities, the principles, the values that our citizens hold dear in each of our countries.”

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Justin Trudeau addresses a press conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Aug. 31 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Trudeau also stated that Canada would not extradite anyone into a situation where they could receive the death sentence.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled, as recently as 2001, that Canada is “constitutionally bound to ask for and obtain an assurance that the death penalty will not be imposed as a condition of extradition.”

The prime minister said Canada would continue to have “frank, honest discussions” with China about the things that matter most to their citizens. At the top of the list, he said, are efforts that would help each other's middle class succeed and prosper.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion was less enthusiastic about an extradition treaty with China. He told reporters that what Canada means by the rule of law is “due process, the independence of the judicial system, the rights for detainees, and asking clemency in every circumstance.”

The talks with China are only a discussion, he said. “No more.”

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