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B.C. student's accused killer to stand trial in Beijing

In a case that spawned unprecedented co-operation between Canadian and Chinese homicide investigators, a former Chinese exchange student is scheduled to stand trial in a Beijing courtroom Tuesday for the killing of his live-in girlfriend in Burnaby.

This is believed to be the first time an individual is being tried in China for a serious crime committed in Canada, and comes nearly nine years after the body of 21-year-old Amanda Zhao, also a Chinese exchange student, was found stuffed into a suitcase near the shores of Stave Lake in the Fraser Valley.

The tragedy has evoked enormous sympathy for the plight of Ms. Zhao's parents back in China, devastated by the loss of their only child, for whom they gave up their savings, coupled with the long wait for her accused killer to stand trial.

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"For that young girl to come over here and be killed in such a terrible way, there's just this tremendous sadness about it," Diana Lary, professor emerita of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia, said Monday. "Everyone I've talked to in the Chinese-Canadian community feels it."

Jenny Kwan, the NDP MLA who had pressed Canadian authorities to end their previous jurisdictional squabble with China over the case, said Tuesday's trial is a bittersweet moment for Ms. Zhao's family, in poor health, with little money left.

"They are glad there is going to be this day in court, but it will not bring Amanda back," said Ms. Kwan, after learning of the trial date in an e-mail from Ms. Zhao's mother, Yang Baoying.

"They had put so much hope and dreams on Amanda for a better life and opportunities, and then to lose their only child in such a way is just unbearable. And then to know the suspected murderer was running free in China for so long, and that mistakes had been made in Canada, it's all been very difficult."

The accused, Ang Li, who recently changed his name to Jia-ming Li, fled to China a few days after his girlfriend's body was found, assisted through security by a member of the Burnaby RCMP concerned he would miss his flight.

Seven months later, Mr. Li was charged in absentia with second-degree murder. According to police, Ms. Zhao had been strangled.

However, Chinese authorities refused all entreaties from Canada to have him returned, claiming jurisdiction over the case since both the victim and the accused were citizens of the People's Republic of China.

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There is no extradition treaty between Canada and China, mostly because of concerns over the quality of Chinese justice.

The jurisdictional impasse lasted five years. Eventually, Canadian officials relented and agreed to hand over their evidence to Chinese investigators after an emotional personal plea from Ms. Zhao's parents, who travelled to B.C. to meet with RCMP brass.

Ms. Kwan said she hoped the Amanda Zhao tragedy will facilitate an extradition agreement between Canada and China.

"What's happened here is precedent-setting. Canada has sent a message that you cannot run from the judicial system, even though it took nine years to come to an agreement," she said. "Maybe now we can reach some sort of judicial agreement, so that in the future people can be tried appropriately."

Ms. Lary, however, was dubious that an extradition pact was likely any time soon. "It would be extremely difficult without major legal reforms in China, a country where the rule of law has not yet much meaning," she said.

Ms. Kwan, acting on behalf of Ms. Zhao's parents, has spearheaded the push to bring Mr. Li before the courts of China. She said she was not overly concerned about the kind of trial Mr. Li will receive in China.

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"He had the opportunity to come back to Canada and face our judicial system here, and he chose not to do so," said Ms. Kwan. "In light of all that, this is the best outcome."

Unlike the situation in the vast majority of trials in China, Mr. Li has not confessed to the crime with which he is charged. In fact, said Ms. Kwan, his family has hired a top-flight lawyer to defend him, prompting Chinese prosecutors to delay the trial for several months.

"I'm told by Ms. Zhao's family that they wanted to make sure all of the evidence is there to ensure they had the strongest case possible going before the judge," the NDP MLA said.

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