Friends of the Ballarat-born former Blue Heelers actor were shocked to hear of the sentence after he was identified by the Department of Foreign Affairs on Saturday, believing Gilespie had disappeared with a new partner and started a fresh life overseas when he vanished almost seven years ago. They have now made unverified claims that Gilespie was duped in a business deal gone awry, with drugs hidden in the lining of leather bags he had been handed as gifts to be taken back to Australia.
Roger Hamilton, who met Gilespie at a wealth management retreat in Bali, said Gilespie’s lawyers had not talked openly about his imprisonment because they thought it would jeopardise the negotiations with China.
“That approach obviously has failed,” he said on Facebook on Monday. “It is heart breaking to think that for the last six and a half years Karm has been in prison without any of us knowing or having any way to support him.”
“Now that we do know, the least we can do is to publicise his case and hope for the Chinese government’s compassion and the Australian government’s diplomatic actions. It’s only a slim chance our voice will make any difference, but it is still a chance.”
Former neighbours Sue and Brian Quartermain, who lived next door to Gilespie in Burwood until eight years ago, said Gilespie performed Banjo Paterson for neighbours and at local schools.
“His acting was brilliant, what we saw of it,” Ms Quartermain said
Ms Quartermain said she often babysat his two young sons and took care of their pet rabbits.”Nothing unusual happened there,” she said. “They were a normal family.”
The neighbours lost touch with the family and did not know Gilespie had travelled to China, or that he had been detained until they saw the news over the weekend.
“You don’t expect something like that, it’s awful. It was a shock,” Ms Quartermain said.
The case highlights the challenges of quiet and public diplomacy at a time of strained diplomatic tensions between Australia and China. Lawyers for Australian-dual nationals before the courts in China have asked for their clients to be referred to by their other nationality.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday that Foreign Minister Marise Payne had raised the case with her Chinese counterparts on a number of occasions. Neither Senator Payne nor Trade Minister Simon Birmingham have had a response from Beijing since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Years of strained tensions over foreign interference have been exacerbated by travel bans and the establishment of an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
Australian National University international law professor Don Rothwell said the timing of the sentence was significant. “I just do not think is coincidental,” he said. China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday dismissed any link between rising trade tensions and the court’s decision.
“Australia should respect our judicial sovereignty,” he said. “This case has nothing to do with the bilateral relationship”.
Jin Xin, a Guangzhou lawyer who specialises in criminal cases but is not representing Gilespie, said the case had taken an unusually long time to reach a sentence and prosecutors and the courts had likely exhausted all methods to extend the case’s time limit.
He said Gilespie could now appeal to the Guangdong Higher People’s Court and then to the Supreme People’s Court for a review.
“7.5 kilograms, in terms of weight alone, is indeed very serious,” he said. “China is prone to severely cracking down on drug-related crimes. If the evidence is strong enough, from a defence perspective, the space for appeal is relatively small.”
Mr Jin said Gilespie’s legal team was likely to take two approaches to their defence – arguing he was blind-sided or played a minor role.
“If he has sufficient evidence to prove that someone else instructed him, and he just charged a few thousand dollars as labor fee, there will still be a chance to get a suspended death sentence or life imprisonment,” he said.
He said the legal team would also look for any procedural issues during the investigation.
“As long as there is a fatal error in the process, we can save a life,” he said.
With Sanghee Liu
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
Rachel is a breaking news reporter for The Age.