|Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated [Reuters]
A man wanted by Chinese authorities for allegedly running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation has been extradited from Canada, despite concerns that he might be tortured or executed when he returns.
Lai Changxiang was deported on Friday after the Federal Court of Canada cleared the way for the extradition.
Judge Michel Shore on Thursday refused a request to stay Lai's deportation. Lai is accused of running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation in the 1990s and is sometimes called China's most-wanted man.
"The life of the applicant is in the Chinese Government's hands," the court ruled, citing a Chinese proverb.
Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated.
Canada rejected his refugee claim, and after years of legal wrangling government lawyer Helen Park said he could be sent back early as Saturday.
China says Lai bribed Chinese officials to avoid paying taxes and duties on everything from fuel to cigarettes that were shipped into China's southeastern Fujian province.
Lai admitted in a 2009 interview with the Globe and Mail newspaper that he had avoided taxes by taking advantage of loopholes in the law, but he denied bribery charges. He said if he were not in Canada he would have been executed by now.
China had told Canada in a diplomatic note that it would not put Lai to death or torture him, and that Canadian officials would have access to him.
Canada, which does not practice capital punishment, prohibits the return of prisoners to countries where they might be put to death.
"The Chinese government says it is assuring safeguards," Judge Shore told Lai's lawyer David Matas during the Ottawa court hearing, which was relayed by teleconference to British Columbia, where Lai is in detention.
Shore said these were "extraordinary" assurances from China, and he asked if the high profile of this case would not guarantee Lai's safety.
"These are not adequate assurances. They don't amount to anything," Matas replied.
Matas told the court Lai's brother and his accountant had both died in prison of unexplained causes and that the same fate could await Lai.
"He too could die in prison without an autopsy and without any explanation. The assurances do not provide for an autopsy, or even a viewing of the corpse," Matas said in a written submission.
"The notion that criminal procedures or the death penalty are easily verifiable is misplaced. The death penalty and criminal procedure assurances suffer from the problem that the courts in China are not public."
Matas said China has only assured that when the court holds open hearings into his case, Canadian officials may attend.
He quoted the US State Department as saying that Chinese courts use state-secret provisions to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, to counsel and to foreign observers.
While Shore was deciding on the final judgement, Matas told Reuters news agency in an email that if the judge ruled against his client, there were no further legal avenues to be pursued.