In a rare, perhaps unprecedented, move, China has agreed to provide regular prison access to Canadian officials to ensure that alleged "kingpin" smuggler Lai Changxing is not tortured, should he be deported from Canada and jailed.
"I've never heard of this [kind of agreement with China] before," Mr. Lai's lawyer, David Matas, said Wednesday.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's unique, and a significant development, globally, in terms of human rights. It indicates how important China views getting Mr. Lai back."
The move is the first in Mr. Lai's long legal battle to stay in Canada since winning a stay of deportation in 2007, when a federal court judge ruled that Canadian immigration officials had not properly assessed his risk of torture back in China.
Mr. Lai, accused of masterminding a multimillion-dollar scheme to smuggle consumer goods into China, is considered that country's most wanted fugitive and a long-time irritant to top Chinese leaders.
The unusual diplomatic note on guaranteed access to Mr. Lai was negotiated by officials from Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
The note also promised that Canadian diplomats would be permitted to attend Mr. Lai's trial, and the accused would have access to a lawyer.
By feeling the need to offer these assurances, particularly the ability to visit Mr. Lai in jail to assess his treatment, China is tacitly admitting that all is not right in its justice system, Mr. Matas said.
"It's not much, but you can say that China blinked. They are not prepared to say that everything's fine."
China agreed to allow visits to Mr. Lai within five days of receiving a request.
Mr. Matas noted, however, that still provides jailers with time to prepare and pressure him to say nothing.
And international human rights observers, including former UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour, have questioned the value of diplomatic assurances against torture.
"I'm not sure Mr. Lai will see much of a silver lining in this," Mr. Matas said. "We can't say he no longer has cause to worry."
He added the mere fact China agreed to jail visits indicates the dangers in custody. "Why don't they just stop torturing?"
The case remains before a Canadian immigration tribunal, charged with reassessing the risks the onetime high-rolling millionaire faces in his home country.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2009, Mr. Lai admitted using loopholes to avoid paying customs duties.
But he said the absence of clear regulations was exploited by most private importers at the time, and he is unable to receive a fair trial in China, where his guilt has already been pronounced by the country's leaders.
Immigration Canada declined immediate comment.