China's attempts to secure the extradition of suspects has been hampered by a lack of agreements with other countries, amid foreign concerns over judicial independence and China's large-scale use of the death penalty.
Canada to expel Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing
BEIJING // The former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji once said the alleged smuggler Lai Changxing deserved to be executed three times over, and it now seems likely that after more than a decade in Canada, the fugitive will have to face the authorities in China.
Often described as China's most wanted man, Mr Lai, 53, is accused of having masterminded a multibillion dollar smuggling ring involving everything from luxury cars to oil, cigarettes and textiles.
However, in contrast to many convicted of corruption on a far more modest scale, he is unlikely to face the death penalty.
As the Chinese authorities closed in on him in 1999, Mr Lai fled with his wife, two sons and daughter to Canada, and since then has battled in the courts to avoid extradition, adding a further chapter to a story of alleged corruption that so captured the imagination of foreign media that one China-based correspondent wrote a book on the subject.
After an Ottawa federal court ruling delivered late on Thursday went against Mr Lai, reports have indicated he could leave Canada as soon as today, although officials have not confirmed this.
"There have been a lot of corrupt officials fleeing China with a lot of money. The Chinese authorities want to establish a deterrent effect, that they can be prosecuted in China," said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.
China's attempts to secure the extradition of suspects has been hampered by a lack of agreements with other countries, amid foreign concerns over judicial independence and China's large-scale use of the death penalty. China does not reveal how many people it executes each year, but human rights groups believe the number runs into thousands and exceeds the total for all other countries combined. The authorities in Beijing say 600 Chinese citizens suspected of economic crimes are at large overseas.
The Chinese authorities offered assurances to Canada that Mr Lai would not be tortured or executed and these were pivotal in securing agreement for his extradition for alleged smuggling, bribery and tax evasion.
"I think there's a certain respect and certain understanding that, given the tremendous attention this case attracted internationally and domestically, the Chinese authorities will be careful to respect the legal principles and procedures," Mr Cheng said.
In a story that exposed the underworld of a country where economic liberalisation has allowed many to accumulate vast fortunes, Mr Lai set up a series of companies that are said to have been involved in smuggling through the port of Xiamen in south-east China worth $10 billion (Dh36.7 billion). He allegedly did not pay billions of dollars in tax.
Mr Lai has been quoted as saying he was exploiting loopholes, but the authorities have seen it differently and after a crackdown on activities in Xiamen originally ordered by Mr Zhu, there have been more than a dozen death sentences handed out, and more than 300 people jailed. Many senior officials in the local government were implicated, but until now the man said to have masterminded the vast operation has evaded the law.
Mr Lai was first arrested in Canada in 2000, the year after he fled there, and although his application for refugee status was refused in 2002, judicial reviews and lengthy assessments of the dangers he might face from China authorities, among other delays, had prevented his extradition. The delays have strained relations between Ottawa and Beijing.
Two weeks ago the Canadian authorities rearrested Mr Lai. Although his legal team has continued to assert he could face torture or death in the event of extradition, China's assurances that this was not the case, even though one of Mr Lai's brothers died in detention, were accepted by the Canadian federal court judge Michel Shore in a ruling upholding a deportation order.
Canada, which does not impose the death penalty, does not allow extraditions where the suspect could face execution.
China indicated it would give Canadian officials access to Mr Lai in custody and to parts of the judicial proceedings.
"It is assumed that the assurances of the Chinese government, as per its written promises, will be kept, as the Chinese government's honour and face is, and will be, bound and kept respectively, by the monitoring for the lifetime of the applicant," the ruling stated.
The judicial system in China has often been criticised by international observers for its perceived subservience to the Communist Party.
The decision to deport Mr Lai was welcomed by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, in a statement reported by the official Xinhua news agency.
"The Chinese government's position is very clear that Lai should be deported to China and put on trial," Mr Ma said.
This week, China demonstrated its willingness to clamp down on corruption, seen as widespread within the vast bureaucracy and in business, when it executed two former vice mayors for taking bribes.