Hailing assurances from the Chinese government that it will not torture or execute Lai Changxing as "strict, clear and unequivocal," a Federal Court judge ruled against the high-profile fugitive, setting the stage for his deportation and ending a legal saga that has long hampered relations between Ottawa and Beijing.
Mr. Lai, who's accused of masterminding a multibillion-dollar smuggling network that imported consumer goods in the city of Xiamen, had asked the court to stay a deportation order issued against him. The 52-year-old feared that like his brother and accountant he would meet a mysterious prison death.
But Mr. Justice Michel Shore said the assurances provided by the Chinese government nullified those concerns, capping a deportation fight that began when Mr. Lai was picked up at a Niagara Falls casino in 2000.
"It is assumed that the assurances of the Chinese government, as per its written promises, will be kept, as the Chinese government's honour and face is, and will be, bound and kept respectively, by the monitoring for the lifetime of the applicant...," Judge Shore wrote in his ruling, issued late Thursday.
Judge Shore said a new contractual government to government climate has been created by the assurances and Mr. Lai's life is in China's hands. He said the assurances, which also allow Canadian officials to visit Mr. Lai and sit in on some of his court hearings, "augur hope for a different way to be taken, in a newly unfolded path to which the Chinese government's signature has been officially affixed for the commitments undertaken. The future, yet to be seen by both countries and others, will stand as witness to the outcome."
The judge isn't the only one to recently address a new relationship between Canada and China.
Mr. Lai was arrested just days before Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird headed to Beijing to bolster ties between the two countries. During his trip, Mr. Baird called China an "important ally" and asserted a "strategic partnership" on matters such as energy, natural resources, and international affairs. It was a change in tone from the early days of the Stephen Harper government, when comments about human rights annoyed China, and Mr. Harper initially chose not to visit. Mr. Baird indicated the Conservative government felt little sympathy for Mr. Lai's plight.
In a statement posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website, spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said: "We welcome the court's decision in Canada."
When Mr. Lai will be deported remains unclear. The Canada Border Services Agency had first indicated it would remove him on July 25. But hours before the judgment was issued, a government lawyer said he could be sent back as early as Saturday. Judge Shore said Mr. Lai was scheduled to be "removal ready" on Friday.
"The CBSA does not share information about when a removal order will be enforced for the safety and security of all those involved," a CBSA spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. She said under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, removal orders must be enforced as soon as possible and that's what the agency is committed to doing.
How long officials can keep the removal under wraps remains to be seen, with dozens of reporters following the case, creating a circus-like atmosphere at each hearing.
Darryl Larson, one of Mr. Lai's lawyers, had indicated to reporters Wednesday that Mr. Lai might be able to extend his time in Canada by asking the court to weigh in on a certified question. But David Matas, Mr. Lai's other counsel, clarified those remarks Thursday and said his client could only ask such a question if the court ruled in his favour.
When asked if Mr. Lai had any legal options left if the court ruled against him, Mr. Matas simply told The Globe and Mail: "No."
During the federal court hearing, Mr. Matas had scoffed at the assurances provided by the Chinese government. He said they didn't go far enough, wouldn't keep his client safe, and wouldn't ensure he received a fair trial.
He told the court Canadians were only promised access to "open court," meaning officials couldn't attend any hearings closed to the public - common practice for politically sensitive proceedings. He added that it would be next to impossible to find a lawyer to represent Mr. Lai who wasn't influenced by the Communist Party, since the government had turned him into the "poster boy" for corruption.
But Judge Shore said none of the issues raised by Mr. Lai, due to the Chinese government's assurances, amounted to clear and convincing proof necessary to support his irreparable harm claim.
"Mr. Lai has provided no evidence in support of his stay motion that he would now be at risk upon return to China, due to the specific assurances provided."
"Furthermore, it is apparent that Mr. Lai has been negotiating his return to China with the Chinese authorities," the judge wrote, referring to evidence put forward by government lawyers. "This willingness to engage in negotiations to return to China belies the alleged risk of return to China."
Judge Shore called Mr. Lai a "common criminal fugitive" who had full access to Canada's immigration process over the last 11 years.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail two years ago, Mr. Lai admitted skirting the law, but said he was merely taking advantage of perceived loopholes at a time of murky custom regulations.
He's been held at a Maple Ridge jail since his arrest two weeks ago.
In 2007, the Federal Court came to Mr. Lai's rescue by overturning an Immigration Canada finding that he faced no risk if returned to China. The judge in that case ordered a new report, with more emphasis on the risk of torture. It took the government agency four years to complete its assessment.