China welcomed a Canadian court's decision to extradite the its most-wanted fugitive, but lawyers and rights activists expressed doubt on Friday that Lai Changxing would have access to a fair trial back home.
The Federal Court cleared the way on Thursday for the extradition of Lai Changxing and he could be sent home as early as Saturday, dismissing concerns that he could be tortured or executed once he arrives back in China.
Mr. Lai's deportation would remove a thorn that has long plagued Sino-Canadian relations. Beijing has sought the deportation of Mr. Lai, accusing him of running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation in the southeastern city of Xiamen in the 1990s in one of China's biggest political scandals in decades.
Mr. Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated.
"The Chinese government's stance on Lai Changxing returning to China to stand trial is clear. We welcome the Canadian court's decision," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The verdict was issued just after the visit of Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird to China, where he said "both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white collar fraudsters."
China promised Canada in a diplomatic note that Mr. Lai would not be tortured or executed and that Canadian officials would have access to him.
"The fact that Canadian government officials appear willing to accept on face value the Chinese government's assurances that it will respect due legal process suggests a near-willful ignorance of the sharp deterioration in China's human rights environment since mid-February 2011," Phelim Kine, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail.
"(The) Canadian government's confidence in the Chinese legal system is curious given that since mid-February 2011, rule of law has been under intensified attack and the Chinese government has been routinely deploying thuggish, unlawful tactics to harass, silence and intimidate lawyers, artists and civil society activists."
The case exploded in the special economic zone of Xiamen in southeastern Fujian province in the mid-1990s when Jia Qinglin, now China's fourth-ranked official, was head of the province.
Beijing has accused Mr. Lai's business empire, the Yuanhua Group, of bribing officials to allow a massive smuggling ring in a scandal that implicated more than 200 senior figures, including Mr. Jia's wife at the time, Lin Youfang.
China put more than 300 suspects on trial and sentenced 14 to death, including provincial officials and a former vice-minister of public security, in a case Beijing has used for a propaganda campaign against corruption.
Many Chinese applauded the court's decision to extradite Mr. Lai. On Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service, Mr. Lai's extradition was the most-talked about topic, with some Chinese expressing thinly veiled criticisms about official corruption, an issue that has sparked rising discontent.
"The repatriation of Lai Changxing is undoubtedly a piece of good news and deserves to be celebrated," said Zhang Yaoxing. "Let's see what his defence lawyer has to say: 'My client is required to return because Chinese officials are hoping to distract the public's attention from their own corruption'."
Mr. Lai admitted in a 2009 interview with Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper that he had avoided taxes by exploiting loopholes in the law, but he denies bribery charges. He said that had he not been in Canada he would have been executed.
Canada has no death penalty and will not usually extradite anyone to a state where capital punishment is practiced without assurances the suspect will not be executed.
Many Chinese legal experts and human rights activists said it was unlikely Mr. Lai could receive a fair trial in China.
"Unless the investigators, prosecutors and judges he will confront dramatically alter their customary practices, Lai will not receive a fair trial by international human rights standards or Canadian criminal justice standards," Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law at New York University, told Reuters. Mr. Cohen was called by the Canadian government as an expert witness at Mr. Lai's refugee hearing several years ago.
"The real question is what detailed provisions has the PRC promised to make to assure Canada that there will be little risk of torture before Lai is convicted and during the undoubtedly long period of his prison sentence."
Reflecting the intensity of China's official position, state media in 2001 cited then-premier Zhu Rongji as saying Mr. Lai "should die three times, and even so that wouldn't be enough."
John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based group that promotes prisoners' rights in China, said in e-mailed comments: "Without a presumption of innocence – indeed with the presumption of guilt – how does one get a "fair trial?"
But he said Chinese assurances and the offer to allow Canadian diplomats access to Mr. Lai should offer some protection.
"If he were tortured or executed, the damage to Sino-Canadian relations would be massive, and would no doubt deter other countries from extraditing suspects who allegedly committed capital crimes back to China," he said.