By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China welcomed a Canadian court's decision to extradite the nation's most-wanted fugitive, but lawyers and rights activists expressed doubt on Friday that he would receive a fair trial back home.
Canada's Federal Court cleared the way on Thursday for the extradition of Lai Changxing, possibly as early as Saturday, dismissing concerns that he could be tortured or executed once he arrives back in China.
Lai's deportation would remove a thorn that has long plagued Sino-Canadian relations. Beijing has sought the deportation of 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.
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 Canada's 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 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," said Phelim Kine, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, in an email.
"(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 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.
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 Lai. On Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service, 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 defense 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'."
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 legal experts and human rights activists said it was unlikely 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.
Cohen was called by the Canadian government as an expert witness at 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," he said, referring to the People's Republic of China.
Reflecting the intensity of China's official position, state media in 2001 cited then-Premier Zhu Rongji as saying 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 emailed 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 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.
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who made waves in 2006 when he said that he would not sell out human rights in China "for the almighty dollar", is due to visit China soon.
On the Internet, some Chinese microbloggers wondered whether Lai's extradition could spell political trouble for other Chinese officials, especially ahead of a tricky handover of power from President Hu Jintao to his likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping starting from late next year.
"Before the 18th Party Congress, Lai will be repatriated back home! Could it be that a great purge is ahead!!" said a microblogger called Nanyanzhiwen, referring to the leadership transition.
In particular, political analysts said the spotlight would be on Jia, who was tainted but never toppled in the scandal.
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin had intervened to protect Jia, making him Beijing's Party boss, before he advanced to number four in the leadership -- despite speculation he would not survive the 17th Party Congress in 2007.
But analysts say incumbent Chinese President Hu Jintao is unlikely to secure Jia's ouster from the party leadership.
"I think the leadership is strongly averse to any kind of purge, any kind of instability," said Andrew Nathan, who specializes in Chinese politics at Columbia University, in emailed comments.
"It would send a signal that there's a power struggle and this could destabilize the regime's control over society. Therefore, it is not worth purging Jia Qinglin (or any other member of the current leadership) even if one has all the evidence one would need to do so."
He added that Jia was also expected to retire at the next Chinese Communist Party Congress, and Hu may decide it is easier to just let Jia serve out his term.
Analysts also say that since Jiang still remains alive and his protégés, including Jia, are still in power, Hu may not have the clout to pull it off.
"Less important officials might end up getting dragged down in all of this," said Jin Zhong, a veteran China politics expert and publisher of Hong Kong's Open magazine.
"But I don't think anyone will touch Jia Qinglin. He's too powerful. After all, he was protected by Jiang Zemin, and will still be protected."
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang, Sabrina Mao and Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Ken Wills and Alex Richardson)