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The Globe and Mail

Families fuming on first day of trial in Amanda Zhao killing

Jia-ming Li, left, is on trial in Beijing in connection with the 2002 death of his girlfriend, Amanda Zhao.

The Canadian Press

The first day of the Beijing trial of the accused murderer of Chinese exchange student Amanda Zhao, strangled in her Burnaby basement apartment nearly nine years ago, provoked sharp outbursts from parents of both sides in the emotional case, according to CTV.

Ben O'Hara-Byrne, the news network's Beijing bureau chief, reported that parents of the accused – Ang Li, Ms. Zhao's former live-in boyfriend – stormed out of proceedings Tuesday, calling the trial a travesty.

"My son is being treated unfairly," Mr. Li's mother told CTV, through an interpreter. "All the evidence showed he is innocent."

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The trial is closed to the media and the general public, but family members were allowed to attend, along with a representative of the Canadian embassy.

The high-profile case is believed to be the first time a suspect has gone on trial in China for a serious crime committed in Canada, a development Canadian officials eventually agreed to when Chinese authorities refused to send Mr. Li back to stand trial in British Columbia.

In fact, New York University professor Jerome Cohen, the paramount Western legal expert on China's justice system, said he had never heard of a similar situation involving a crime in the United States either.

Mr. O'Hara-Byrne, who remained outside the court building, said he was told the trial was highly-charged from the beginning.

"We were told that there were blow-ups in the courtroom, a lot of yelling between the two families – especially Li's family over the evidence that was being produced. They felt it was unfair," Mr. O'Hara-Byrne said, in his report.

"Amanda Zhao's family left yelling about how angry Li's family had been inside. So, really this was not a civil proceeding."

He said the Canadian embassy official declined comment on proceedings, which were scheduled to continue Wednesday.

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Prof. Cohen said that generally China's criminal process does not come close to meeting North American standards of fairness "both regarding pre-trial procedures and trial and appellate procedures."

The body of 21-year old Amanda Zhao was found stuffed into a suitcase near the shores of Stave Lake in the Fraser Valley in October of 2002.

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.

"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 emeritus 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 the 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.

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"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, 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.

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 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.

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.

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

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