Canada deports top Chinese fugitive
Alleged smuggling ringleader fought 11 years for asylum
BEIJING - In a closely watched case that could affect Chinese citizens in Western countries, state security officials arrested China’s most-wanted fugitive yesterday after Canadian authorities deported him, ending more than a decade of attempts to escape imprisonment.
Lai Changxing, 53, is suspected of leading a corruption ring that caused a major government upheaval in the late 1990s, touching the man widely expected to be chosen next year to lead China, Vice President Xi Jinping.
Lai is accused of overseeing a smuggling ring from Xiamen, a Pacific coast city opposite Taiwan, that netted as much as $10 billion before he fled China in August 1999. He later flew to Canada from Hong Kong and sought protection as a refugee, saying he faced torture or death should he be returned to his homeland.
Lai’s 11-year legal battle to remain in Canada has long soured the two nations’ diplomatic relations.
His lawyer, David Matas, has said that both Lai’s accountant and his brother had died of unknown causes while in prison, and that Lai could face the same fate. China’s legal system could not provide him a fair trial, Matas contended.
But Thursday, a Canadian federal court ruled against Lai, calling him a “common criminal’’ and saying it largely accepted as “strict, clear, and unequivocal’’ China’s pledges that it would not torture or execute him. He was placed on a Beijing-bound airplane the next day, and was arrested after he landed in Beijing yesterday.
Chinese authorities also have promised the Canadian government that Lai will be tried in public and would be allowed to mount a defense against the smuggling charges. Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the decision, which capped years of exhaustive diplomatic efforts to have Lai returned to China to stand trial. In a statement quoted by the official news agency Xinhua, the State Security Ministry said that “no matter where a criminal suspect flees, he or she cannot evade legal sanctions in the end.’’
In Beijing, the state-run English-language newspaper China Daily reported yesterday that Lai could face life in prison if he is convicted.
Some Western human rights organizations have cast doubt on China’s guarantees of a fair trial. A Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Bequelin, said in an interview that China likely will avoid “blatant procedural violations’’ to show Western countries that it can fairly deal with sensitive cases, such as those of Uighur separatists who have claimed asylum in the West but are charged with crimes in China.
“This is undoubtedly a test case,’’ Bequelin said. “It will establish a precedent and much is at stake.’’
The case centers on Lai’s activities in the freewheeling coastal special economic zone of Xiamen (formerly known as Amoy), which was under Xi Jinping’s purview when he was governor of Fujian Province. According to reports at the time, Lai’s flight prompted the country’s leadership to summon Xi to Beijing to explain how such an elaborate corruption ring had been allowed to flourish under his watch.
Lai was head of the Yuanhua Group, which built an 88-story tower in Xiamen as well as clubs and housing developments. He was accused of heading a $10 billion scheme to bribe customs officials to import cars and oil into China, evading millions of dollars in taxes. Before fleeing, he had enjoyed widespread government support, including a prestigious position with a group that advises the ruling Communist Party on policy.
Lai was first arrested in Canada a year after he fled, at a casino in Niagara Falls. Canadian courts consistently rejected his claim to asylum status but refused to send him back to China.
The atmosphere changed this year after the newly elected Canadian government of Stephen Harper sent its foreign minister to China. Reversing the government’s previous critical stance on China’s human rights record, he hailed China as a strategic ally and, referring to Lai, said that “both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don’t have a lot of time for white-collar fraudsters.’’