Doubts remain in trial of smuggler

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am


Unlike the 11 businessmen and officials enmeshed in the web of smuggling and bribery he masterminded, Lai Changxing has escaped the death penalty. The life sentence for the man, who for more than a decade was China's most wanted fugitive, ended a 13-year saga of crime, corruption, flight from justice and a legal and diplomatic tug of war. The efforts of the highest level of government that spared him execution and eventually led to his extradition from Canada, must seem an eternal injustice to the families of those who were sentenced to death, although smuggling no longer carries the death penalty. However, the verdict closes the file on the fall of a Xiamen -based, multibillion-dollar smuggling and tax evasion empire said to be a mainstay of Fujian's economy in the 1990s. It also sets a precedent of co-operation that could help bring many more fugitives to justice.

Lai and his lawyers stalled extradition for more than a decade with a claim that he faced the death penalty, which Canada does not sanction, despite repeated public assurances to the contrary from as high as former president Jiang Zemin .

The reticence of Canadian officials and courts to deport him after he escaped imminent arrest and sought political asylum in 1999 is understandable. After all, China executed his former chief partners in crime. It still executes more people than any other country, and its judicial processes lack transparency. He was extradited only after a judge said China had given extraordinary assurances that he would not be executed or tortured - pledges that amounted to a contractual obligation.

Beijing has said there are another 600-odd suspects still on the run overseas, many of them businessmen and officials living a life of luxury on ill-gotten gains. China's chances of getting many of them back to face justice are seen as depending greatly on how their adopted countries see the judicial process in Lai's case, including his treatment in jail. Although Xinhua says family, Canadian officials and some members of the public attended the trial, rights advocates and international observers say their concerns about the lack of transparency have been vindicated.

When the authorities rolled up Lai's network, they made great play of it as anti-corruption propaganda. Lai's case was a chance to smooth the path to bringing more culprits home to face justice, by being seen to give him a fair and open trial that signalled a commitment to ongoing judicial reform.

There may be no doubt about Lai's guilt, but the official version of proceedings leaves questions about fair process and transparency. Hopefully other accounts will lay some of these doubts to rest.