TORONTO, Canada — China’s most-wanted fugitive has lost an epic 11-year battle to stay in Canada after a federal court on Thursday refused to stay his deportation.
Lai Changxing, an alleged smuggling kingpin who fled to Canada with his family in 1999, has been rejected as a refugee despite claims he would be tortured or executed if forced to return to China.
Lai could be deported to China as early as Friday after a federal court judge dismissed Lai’s last official chance to avoid deportation.
China, which waged a testy diplomatic battle with Canada over Lai's case, had given assurances to the Canadian government that Lai would not be executed and would be treated fairly if returned.
If Lai is indeed deported, the case will be a propaganda coup for China, which regularly wages anti-corruption campaigns and uses capital punishment in corruption and smuggling cases.
Lai, an illiterate laborer who became a tycoon in the booming port city of Xiamen, is accused of masterminding a multi-billion dollar smuggling network that imported consumer goods in he 1990s without paying customs duties.
Canada does not have capital punishment, and the country will not deport people to countries where they could face execution if convicted of a crime. Chinese authorities have reportedly executed at least 17 people said to have been involved in Lai’s business operations, the Toronto Star says.
“The life of the applicant is in the Chinese government’s hands,” wrote Justice Michel Shore in his ruling. “The assurances are present. A new contractual government-to-government climate has been created by the assurances ... The future, yet to be seen by both countries and others, will stand as witness to the outcome.”
Lai’s lawyer had argued that China cannot be trusted, and would not give him a fair trial.
“This effort to get at Mr. Lai is a political campaign by the government of China to show it is fighting corruption,” lawyer David Matas told the Toronto Star. “If you actually read the assurances they don’t amount to anything.”
Matas told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Lai had "become the poster boy for the fight against corruption."
China's Foreign Ministry praised the Canadian court decision
"Lai Changxing has been wanted by the Chinese judiciary as a prime suspect in a Xiamen smuggling case and fled after the incident to Canada for many years," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement, according to Reuters.
"The Chinese government's stance on Lai Changxing returning to China to stand trial is clear," Ma said. "We welcome the Canadian court's decision."