A Canadian judge Thursday upheld the deportation of one of China's most wanted fugitives, calling him a "common criminal."
Lai Changxing could be returned to China as early as July 23, government lawyer Helen Park told Federal Justice Michel Shore earlier in the day.
Lai's lawyer David Matas had asked Canada's Federal Court earlier in the day to stay his client's deportation, arguing he would not get a fair trial in his native country.
Matas told Shore that Communist officials are using his client to deflect allegations of corruption against themselves.
"He's become the poster boy for the fight against corruption," Matas told the court via telephone from Berlin.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement that China had been clear all along in wanting Lai extradited to face trial in China.
"We welcome the court's decision in Canada," Ma said in a statement posted on the ministry's website.
For 12 years Lai has been fighting his deportation to China, where he faces allegations he masterminded a massive smuggling operation that robbed the government of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes. Lai has long maintained he could be tortured or killed if returned to his home country.
"Mr. Lai has failed to establish that he will suffer irreparable harm if he were returned to China," Shore ruled.
He said the fact Lai has been in negotiations with Chinese officials to return belies his assertions of risk if he returns.
Chinese officials have assured Canada that Lai won't be executed or tortured and will get a fair trial with access to a lawyer if he's returned to face charges.
Government lawyer Jan Brongers told the judge that China risks damaging its international reputation if it reneges on diplomatic assurances to Canada not to execute or torture Lai, and "it would make it more difficult for China to repatriate fugitives back for trial."
"It is assumed that the assurances of the Chinese Government, as per its written promises, will be kept," the judge said, noting the "Chinese Government's honor and face" are bound up in meeting the assurances.
Matas said China only provides a lawyer for a guilty plea, not to raise a defense, and he told the court Lai's brother and his accountant have both died mysteriously in prison in China.
Lawyers for Canada's government said they don't know the cause of death for Lai's brother or accountant and they don't have autopsy reports.
Matas said Lai could die in the same way.
"You don't need to speculate about why they died or how they died to have that concern," he told Shore, who was taking part in the teleconference hearing from Ottawa. "When you're dealing with the Chinese prison system, everything that goes on in them is a state secret."
Matas said Canadian officials have been told they can attend Lai's open court hearings, but most politically sensitive cases in China are held behind closed doors.
"This is obviously a politically sensitive proceeding. The governments of Canada and China have commented on it several times," Matas said.
Officials with Canada Border Services Agency arrested Lai two weeks ago, a day after a second pre-removal risk assessment by the federal government said China would not seek the death penalty or torture Lai if he was returned to face charges.
The first risk assessment released in 2006 also said he was safe to be returned, but a Federal Court overturned that decision.
Lai remains behind bars, after an Immigration and Refugee Board decision Wednesday granting his freedom was overturned by Federal Court later that day.