A Chinese court has handed a sentence of life in jail to the boss of a huge smuggling and bribery scam who was at the centre of a lengthy deportation battle with Canada, state media has said.
Lai Changxing, 53, received the sentence at a court in southeast China’s Xiamen, the city from which he directed his sprawling criminal empire before fleeing the country, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.
The sentence was the maximum available to the Xiamen Intermediate People’s Court after China, in order to secure Lai’s extradition, issued an unusual promise to the Canadian government not to execute him.
At least 14 death sentences were meted out to less important figures in the case when trials were held over a decade ago, bringing down national-level military and police officials and a swarm of local functionaries.
Lai was sentenced to life in jail for smuggling, in addition to losing all his personal assets, according to Xinhua.
The court separately sentenced him to 15 years in jail for bribery, the agency said, giving no further details.
Lai’s organisation smuggled luxury cars, cigarettes and other products worth a total of about $4.3bn, evading some $2.2bn in taxes, Xinhua said, quoting the verdict.
This was made possible by paying bribes in cash or in kind worth about $6.1m to 64 different officials, according to the verdict.
“The sums involved are unusually large, and the details are extraordinarily serious, meriting the double sentence,” the court was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
End of the line
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Hong Kong on Friday, called the sentence “the end of the line for Lai Changxing, China’s most wanted fugitive, and a victory for Chinese law enforcers”.
“Lai’s criminal empire was vast. It reached to various levels of government involving government officials and customs officers. His operations ran into hundreds of millions of US dollars,” McBride said.
“Throughout the years, Chinese officials have been tracking down, breaking up those responsible for this racket, bringing hundreds of people to book, but it was always Lai who was the kingpin of the operation – the person they most wanted to see in the dock. And it has taken them well over 10 years to do it.”
As the case unravelled in the late 1990s, Lai managed to escape to Canada, but was deported back to China in July last year after a 12-year battle against repatriation.
During that time, China had to give guarantees to Canada that Lai would not face the death penalty on being brought back to his home country to face trial.
“The Chinese have been good to their word,” our correspondent said. “But he has been given life in prison, which in this case will probably mean life.”
The case, one of the largest graft scandals in communist China’s 62-year history, exposed a tight relationship between officials and entrepreneurs in the free-wheeling port city of Xiamen.
It has received huge attention in China, where corruption is one of the key causes of public discontent.
Lai meanwhile claimed the accusations against him were politically motivated.