Karm Gilespie: government appeals to China over fate of Australian man sentenced to death

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Originally published by The Guardian on June 15, 2020

The Australian man sentenced to death in China over alleged drug trafficking has been the subject of repeated Australian government representations, Scott Morrison said on Monday.

It comes as the family of the man, Karm Gilespie, released a statement pleading for privacy, and for friends to stop publicly speculating on the case.

Gilespie has been detained in China since late 2013, it was revealed on the weekend. The 56-year-old was arrested at Guangzhou airport carrying 7.5kg of methamphetamine on 31 December 2013, according to Chinese state media.

Guangzhou Intermediate Court said in a statement on its website that on the morning of 10 June, Gilespie had been sentenced to death for drug smuggling and would have all his personal property confiscated.Universities hit back at China’s ‘unjustified’ warning to students that Australia is unsafeRead more

Many of his friends claim that was the first time they knew of his whereabouts since they lost contact more than six years ago.

On Monday Morrison said Australian officials have raised Gilespie’s case with Chinese counterparts on a number of occasions, and were still working to secure his freedom.

“I and the government are very sad and concerned that an Australian citizen, Mr Karm Gilespie, has been sentenced to death in China,” he told parliament.

“Our thoughts are with him, his family and his loved ones.”

In a statement issued via the department of foreign affairs and trade, Gilespie’s family said they were “very saddened by the situation”.

“We will not be making any public comment and ask that the media respects our privacy at this difficult time,” it said.

“We also request that friends and acquaintances of Karm refrain from speculating on his current circumstances, which we do not believe assists his case.”

The Australian government routinely advocates quietly behind the scenes for citizens in legal trouble overseas.

Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said the country’s opposition to the death penalty was consistent and well-known.

“We advocate consistently for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, via every diplomatic avenue available to us,” she said.

“We will continue to provide Mr Gilespie with consular assistance. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones.”

Karm Gilespie disappeared in 2013, according to friends who have spoken publicly in recent days.

Jill Parris, who said she was a childhood friend of Gilespie, posted on Facebook that she had been searching for him since 2013 because they were usually in constant contact.

Parris said he “suddenly vanished from existence during the Christmas time of 2013”, after having called her to say he was going on a business trip to Thailand with a new girlfriend.

“I made him promise to get in touch with me when he was situated and he promised he would,” said Parris.

“The man never not called or wrote to me in the 38 past years of our lives … so when he didn’t get back in touch I was immediately scared it was due to something beyond his control.”

While Chinese law enforcement and prosecutors can extend an investigative period, six years is extraordinary and likely against criminal procedural law, human rights groups said. It’s not know what legal counsel Gilespie has had access to.

The Guangzhou court is yet to publish any record of the judgment or case.

Leo Lan, a research and advocacy consultant for Chinese Human Rights Defenders , said the timing was “odd”.

“It’s a simple drug case, I also wonder why it would need to take so many years for the court to reach such a decision and what kind of ‘evidence’ it’s based on,” he said.Australia can expect China to lash out more often. We must foster resilience and sangfroidRead more

The announcement of the death sentence, six-and-a-half years after Gilespie’s arrest, has prompted widespread speculation that it relates to current diplomatic hostilities between Australia and China.

“In recent years, the Chinese government reduced the number of offences punishable by death and that included quite a number of drug-related offences,” Lan says. “So, this move is really bizarre and [we] cannot rule out the possibility it’s related to China’s current appalling diplomatic relation with Australia.”

Australia’s relationship with China has suffered over its support for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and trade retaliation, including tariffs on Australian barley, delisting of Australian abattoirs, and warnings to Chinese students against travelling to Australia because of racist attacks.

Observers have drawn comparisons with the arrest of two Canadians around the same time Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou.

On Monday a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Lijian Zhao, said the case had “nothing to do with the bilateral relationship”.

“We strictly restrict the application of the death penalty, it can lead to deterrence and prevention of drug relation crimes.”

Zhao said all matters were dealt with equally, regardless of nationality.

Australia’s deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, highlighted the need for diplomacy in the case, rejecting assertions the penalty might be politically motivated.

“What we need to do is be very careful, and what we need to do is make sure that anything that’s said about this matter doesn’t affect Mr Gilespie’s cause and case in any way, shape or form,” he told the ABC.

“We want to make sure that we give him every available assistance and we are, through the proper processes.”

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