Canada to deport China's most wanted
Vancouver - A Canadian court has cleared the way for China's most wanted fugitive, Lai Changxing, to be sent home to face criminal charges, in a ruling welcomed on Friday by Beijing.
The case of Lai - who Chinese authorities accused of running a $6bn smuggling ring before he fled to Canada in 1999 - has soured diplomatic relations between the two countries, and pitted western ideas about human rights against China's treatment of prisoners.
"The life of the applicant is in the Chinese government's hands," Judge Michel Shore of Canada's Federal Court ruled late on Thursday.
China earlier promised not to sentence Lai to death if he is tried and found guilty. Canada, which does not practice capital punishment, prohibits the return of prisoners to countries where they might be executed.
There was no immediate word from Lai's lawyers about whether the ruling will be appealed.
"We welcome this decision by the Canadian court," the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.
The ministry described Lai as "the primary criminal suspect wanted by China's judicial authorities in the huge Xiamen smuggling case, and he has been a fugitive in Canada for many years since the case emerged".
Lai remained behind bars overnight, after a separate court ruling overturned an order by the Immigration and Refugee Board to release him.
Canadian officials told the court Lai could be extradited as early as the weekend.
If an appeal is not launched, or fails, the ruling will end Lai's 12-year battle to remain in Canada.
He fled here with his family after being accused in China of running a massive smuggling ring based in the city of Xiamen in Fujian province, bribing officials, and avoiding paying taxes.
Canada's government has repeatedly tried to send Lai to China, and he's been called a "common criminal" by politicians and judges. But until now the independent courts and Immigration and Refugee Board had blocked his deportation on human rights grounds.
This week Foreign Minister John Baird noted, during a visit to China, that while Canada's courts are independent, "both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white-collar fraudsters".
Lai admitted to Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, in a 2009 interview, that he had taken advantage of perceived loopholes in Chinese law at a time of murky custom regulations.
Earlier this month, a key risk assessment by immigration officials cleared the way for his return, after they ruled Lai would not risk death or torture if extradited. Thursday's ruling rejected the prisoner's appeal of the assessment.
His lawyer, well-known human rights advocate David Matas, has warned repeatedly that Lai would risk death or torture in China, despite the country's unusual diplomatic assurances to Canada. Lai's lawyers say at least seven of his associates have died or vanished in China's justice system.
Matas told the court on Thursday Lai had become China's "poster boy for the fight against corruption".
Matas noted in a court filing that China has promised "access to a lawyer, permission of a Canadian official to be present at the hearing of the applicant, Canadian official access to recordings of interrogations and hearings, and permission for Canadian officials to visit the applicant in prison, mitigating risk of abuse".
But, he added, "these four assurances amount to nothing".
The court apparently disagreed.
Family returned voluntarily
Shore's ruling cited China's much-criticized record on its treatment of other prisoners, but the judge said "it is assumed that the assurances of the Chinese government... will be kept".
China's "honour and face" would be at stake during the lifetime monitoring of Lai, it added.
Lai's wife and children had previously returned to China voluntarily, and suggestions that Lai was talking to China about also returning became a factor in Thursday's ruling.
"This willingness to engage in negotiations to return to China belies the alleged risk of return to China," Shore said.
At a recent detention hearing, a Vancouver police officer testified that an informant told him Lai had been involved in illegal gambling and loan sharking activities in 2009, and had associated with members of a known criminal gang.