China said on Thursday that it is paying close attention to the deportation case of its most wanted man from Canada, after his refugee claim was rejected and he was nearly deported last week following years of legal wrangling.
Beijing has sought the deportation of Lai Changxing for years, accusing him of running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation in China's southeastern city of Xiamen in the 1990s.
A week short of what may be his last legal bid to stay in Canada, Mr. Changxing remains behind bars, after a surprise Wednesday evening court ruling blocked an order he be released.
Federal lawyers sought Mr. Lai's continued detention just hours after Immigration and Refugee Board member Leeann King ruled Tuesday that he should be freed from custody while awaiting a July 21 court challenge to his deportation.
A hastily convened, rare night session of the Federal Court put Mr. Lai's release on hold, to give the Canada Border Services Agency time to appeal Ms. King's decision.
The ruling by Mr. Justice James O'Reilly was handed down shortly before 9 p.m.
Mr. Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated.
His deportation date is tentatively set for July 25, but that could be pushed back by months if he succeeds in further legal challenges.
Despite determination by Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board on Tuesday that there was no apparent flight risk and that Lai could go free for now, the Federal Court stayed that decision later in the day, in response to a request from the Canadian Border Services Agency.
"China has noticed the relevant progress of the Canadian government's risk assessment in the case of Lai Changxing," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing.
"Lai Changxing is China's judicial department's prime criminal suspect wanted in the Xiamen smuggling case," he added. "The Chinese government's position on Lai Changxing's return to be tried in accordance with the law is clear and consistent."
China says Mr. Lai lavished bribes on Chinese officials to avoid paying taxes and duties on goods ranging from fuel to cigarettes that were shipped into China's southeastern Fujian province.
Mr. Lai admitted in a 2009 interview with The Globe and Mail that he had avoided taxes by taking advantage of loopholes in the law, but he denies bribery charges. He said if he were not in Canada he would have been executed by now.
Canada does not have a death penalty and will not usually deport someone to a death-penalty state without assurance the suspect will not be executed.
The case is likely to arise during Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird's July 16-20 visit to China, where he is trying to expand Canada's reach.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made waves in 2006 when he said that he would not sell out human rights in China "for the almighty dollar."
With files from The Globe and Mail's Rod Mickleburgh