By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China arrested its most wanted fugitive in the capital Beijing Saturday after Canada deported him to end a decades-long saga that had plagued Sino-Canadian relations, but concerns remained among activists about whether he would receive a fair trial.
Beijing has sought the deportation of Lai Changxing, 53, 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.
Lai arrived at Beijing's international airport, where Chinese police "announced his arrest and read him his rights, including hiring lawyers to defend himself, after he was transferred by the Canadian side," state news agency Xinhua reported, citing the ministry of public security.
Lai may face life imprisonment, Xinhua cited Chinese legal experts as saying Friday. Other legal experts and human rights activists said it was unlikely Lai could receive a fair trial in China.
Lai had been put on a plane from Canada Friday, after a court cleared the way Thursday for his extradition, dismissing concerns that he could be tortured or executed back home.
"Lai's repatriation once again shows that no matter where a criminal suspect flees, he or she cannot evade legal sanctions in the end," Xinhua quoted the ministry as saying.
State television showed Lai, dressed in a grey polo T-shirt and wearing thick-framed black glasses, looking dispirited and nodding as police read out his rights. After he was made to sign his warrant, he was escorted into a SWAT vehicle.
Lai's deportation was decided just after Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird's visit to Beijing, which laid the groundwork for an upcoming trip by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to China. Harper made waves in 2006 when he said that he would not sell out human rights in China "for the almighty dollar."
Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated.
China had promised Canada that Lai would not be tortured or executed and that Canadian officials would have access to him.
"I do hope that China can set a good record in such an unprecedented event," rights lawyer Shang Baojun told Reuters. "The Canadians gave China a lot of face this time and I think China should reciprocate."
But he added: "China's judiciary is not perfectly transparent, and I can't say anything for sure."
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.
The case exploded in the special economic zone of Xiamen in Fujian province in the mid-1990s when Jia Qinglin, now the ruling Communist Party's fourth most senior leader, was the province's Party boss.
Beijing has accused 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 Jia's wife, Lin Youfang. She denied any wrongdoing.
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.
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.
Police statistics in 2010 showed that there were nearly 600 Chinese suspects at large overseas, who are wanted for economic crimes, mostly corruption, Xinhua said.
Many Chinese applauded the return of Lai.
"I think he should have been extradited ages ago," said 29-year-old Yang Wen. "Many of his crimes were committed in China so if he's going to be tried, it should happen in China."
Some favored the death penalty for Lai.
"Ultimately, a lot of people were hurt because of him, so I think that kind of punishment is necessary," said a female property developer who gave her name as Yang.
(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan in Beijing, Jacqueline Wong in Shanghai, Farah Master in Hong Kong, David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer in Ottawa; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)