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Chinese trial for homicide in Canada breaks new legal ground

Amanda Zhao's parents speak to the media in 2008. The Zhaos are waiting anxiously for a verdict in the trial of Ms. Zhao's accused killer, Ang Li.

laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

It broke new ground in Canada's often prickly relations with the People's Republic of China.

Now, following the first ever trial conducted by Chinese authorities in Beijing for a murder committed in Canada – with evidence provided by the RCMP – the stressed families of both sides wait tensely for the verdict.

International law expert Michael Byers said Canada's precedent-setting surrender of jurisdiction in the case reflects China's status as "the new super power" and a belief by Canadian officials that a trial in the People's Republic was better than no trial at all.

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Both the accused, Ang Li, and the victim, his 21-year old girlfriend Amanda Zhao, had been Chinese exchange students living together in Burnaby.

Mr. Li fled to China shortly after Ms. Zhao's body was found stuffed into a suitcase, nearly nine years ago.

Some months later after his flight, the Crown charged Mr. Li in absentia with second-degree murder. But China refused all Canadian entreaties to have him returned to face trial in British Columbia, on the grounds the victim and the accused were Chinese citizens.

"What's unusual is that the crime was committed here and evidence was transferred to China," said Prof. Byers of the University of B.C.

"China refused flat out to send [Mr. Li]back, although we sent back one of theirs [recently deported fugitive Lai Changxing]"

He said Canada had to make the difficult decision to try and achieve some accountability for the murder. "But the price that has been paid is acceptance of being the weaker power in this new asymmetrical relationship with China."

After two days of hearings in Beijing, the trial was adjourned Wednesday without a verdict.

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Although proceedings were closed to the media and the general public, family members allowed to attend told reporters that sessions were punctuated by emotional outbursts from the parents of Mr. Li and Ms. Zhao.

"The case has not been easy because [Mr. Li's]family is very swaggering," said Li Junjun, a cousin of Ms. Zhao. She said Mr. Li and his lawyers now deny all previous statements and are now pleading not guilty.

Ms. Zhao's parents, retired and poorly off, have expressed fears that Mr. Li may get off lightly, or even acquitted, because he comes from a well-connected military family.

The case is a rarity in China's justice system, since it went ahead without a confession from the defendant.

Among those representing Mr. Li in court was one of the country's top lawyers, Tian Wenchang, a senior director of several legal associations in China, with a reputation for arguing tough, high-profile cases, including major bribery and fraud allegations.

Ms. Li, no relation to the accused, said Ms. Zhao's parents, who sacrificed much of their savings to finance her education in Canada, have been looking forward to the day of a verdict against Mr. Li for a long time.

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"Now, finally, after all these years, there will be one. We think this time justice should be done," she said.

The RCMP agreed to hand over its evidence to Chinese investigators only after China agreed not to execute Mr. Li, if he is convicted.

Prof. Byers said the commitment, similar to a pledge given in the case of Lai Changxing, was significant.

"It does reflect some movement on the part of China. It's not as if China isn't budging at all. China has budged," he said.

Prof. Byers acknowledged that China's current justice system does not meet international standards.

"It would be greatly preferable if the trial were taking place in Canada, no question. But the question is whether a trial in China is better than no trial, and I can see the argument in favour of transferring the evidence to allow that trial to go forward."

Meanwhile, New York University professor Jerome Cohen, the foremost Western expert on China's justice system, said the circumstances of the Li murder trial may be a first in North America, let alone Canada.

"I've never heard of an American equivalent," said Prof. Cohen in an e-mail response.

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