End of the Road For Lai Changxing, One of China’s Most Wanted Fugitives

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Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing listens to questions from reporters during a news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia in this April 5, 2007 file photo. (Lyle Stafford / Reuters)

For more than a decade Lai Changxing has been fighting in Canadian courts to avoid being sent back to China, where he is wanted for running a multi-billion-dollar smuggling enterprise out of the southeastern port city of Xiamen. Now the deportation battle of one of China’s most wanted men is reaching an end. A Canadian judge upheld Lai’s deportation order, and a government lawyer said he could be sent back to China as early as Saturday, the Globe and Mail reported. (Update July 23: Chinese state media says Lai arrived in Beijing on Saturday afternoon and was arrested by police at the airport.) Lai, who was arrested at a Canadian casino in 2000, had argued that if he were returned to China he would be unable to receive a fair trial and face possible torture and execution. His lawyer says that 15 people have already been given death sentences in connection with his case, and “eight or nine” have been executed, according to the Vancouver Sun. In addition, one of Lai’s brothers and an accountant have died in prison, his lawyers say.

Federal Court Judge Michel Shore ruled that the Canadian government had sought and received assurances that Lai would be treated fairly. “It is assumed that the assurances of the Chinese Government, as per its written promises, will be kept,” Shore wrote in his ruling, which was handed down Thursday. (A pdf copy of the ruling is available here on the Globe and Mail‘s website.) Shore concluded that “Mr. Lai is a common criminal fugitive from the Chinese justice system who has had full access to Canada’s immigration processes over the last eleven years and has been found not to be at risk if removed to China on the basis of extraordinary assurances received and held as valid.”

The ruling signals an end to a long-standing obstacle to relations between China and Canada. It also shows that China is making some headway in convincing foreign governments to return criminal suspects who have sought refuge abroad. The Chinese government has argued that its efforts to cut down on corruption have been stymied by the lack of extradition agreements with other nations. Many of those other nations have expressed wariness about sending suspects to face trial in China, where the decisions of courts in important trials are subject to intervention by the Communist Party.

When my colleague Hannah Beech interviewed Lai for a 2002 TIME Asia cover story, he expressed grave fears about what would happen should he ever return to China:

In the teahouses of the capital, pundits whisper that the Lai case could reverberate even higher up into the echelons of power—and that’s why China wants him home, to keep him quiet. Lai and his wife Zeng Mingna, now a haggard slip of a woman, refuse to believe China will honor its diplomatic promise to spare them from execution. “You cannot believe the Chinese government,” says Lai, snapping a toothpick in half to emphasize his point. “They want to get me back so they can shut me up forever.”