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Lai Changxing is led away in handcuffs from an immigration hearing in Vancouver on July 11, 2011. The alleged smuggler's deportation back to China appears imminent as Canadian authorities recently placed him in custody.Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian government is deporting hundreds of people to China each year without receiving any assurances that they will not be tortured or otherwise mistreated, statistics provided to The Globe and Mail reveal.

Canada and China do not have a formal extradition treaty, and the Trudeau government has signalled that it may not complete such a deal out of concern about abuses in the Chinese justice system.

The lack of such a deal has not, however, stopped Canada from sending people back to China. The Canada Border Services Agency has used deportation, expelling 1,386 people to China over the past three years, according to agency statistics.

Read more: Shuanggui: The harsh, hidden side of China's war on graft, and how one man disappeared into it

Read more: Former CSIS directors question Canada's pursuit of extradition treaty with China

It's a process that lawyers, academics and former diplomats say offers too few protections against the mistreatment deportees might endure.

It also places Canada at risk of using evidence rooted in coerced confessions as Canadian authorities make decisions on ejecting people, particularly those sought by Beijing as part of its sweeping global Skynet operation to chase people it calls corrupt fugitives.

When people are returned to a country such as China, "there's a need for very significant and enforceable assurances about the treatment they will receive and monitoring on the part of Canada – which Canada has not done," said Sharryn Aiken, an expert on immigration and refugee law at Queen's University.

"And in the absence of monitoring, people die in jail."

The United Nations Committee against Torture has said that in China "the practice of torture and ill-treatment is still deeply entrenched in the criminal-justice system."

Canada's own foreign service recently signed its name to a letter saying there are "credible claims of torture" against people under interrogation in China.

Before deporting someone, Canadian immigration officials can conduct what is called a "preremoval risk assessment," designed to evaluate whether a person is in danger of mistreatment upon return. "Due diligence is important before undertaking any removal measures," said Nicholas Dorion, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency. That assessment is "in place to ensure that a person will not be removed to a country where they could face death or torture."

But risk assessments are done entirely in Canada and do not include demands that China guarantee it will abide by certain standards of conduct, or allow Canada to monitor deportees.

"Many of us don't feel it's really an effective safeguard," said Vancouver immigration lawyer Douglas Cannon. "Especially in the case of people who are being sent back to face prosecution in China."

The potential for problems is serious enough that David Mulroney, the former Canadian ambassador to China, says Ottawa should refuse to co-operate with Beijing on most corruption cases, limiting joint law-enforcement work to public-safety cases involving people accused of murder or drug offences.

When China demands the return of people it calls corrupt, it is asking Canada "to send people back into a very murky and worrisome Chinese system," he said. "You have to be very sure that you are not on the Canadian side enabling the Chinese to unfairly prosecute someone."

Using Interpol

Ottawa does have the ability to demand assurances from countries such as China, as it did in the high-profile deportation of notorious smuggler Lai Changxing in 2011. Beijing pledged not to torture or execute the man it then considered its number one most-wanted. China also promised Canada extraordinary rights to monitor his treatment. Mr. Lai's case, however, was a notable exception.

Canada maintains lists of countries to which deportations are either permanently or temporarily blocked, although it has exceptions for criminals and people deemed to be a security risk. Canada deported 6,964 people in 2016. Of those, 382 were sent to China, just more than 5 per cent of the total, CBSA statistics show. In recent years, Chinese citizens have been the fourth-most regularly deported from Canada, behind citizens of Hungary, the United States and Mexico.

It's not clear how many of those deportations to China were for corruption cases. Canada Border Services Agency statistics show that over all, in 2016, 11 per cent of deportees were sent back for "criminality;" 0.3 per cent for "organized crime;" and the majority – 77 per cent – for undefined "non-compliance."

China has sought to ease the process of returning people it accuses of corruption by signing extradition treaties, and it has successfully set in place deals with France and Spain. The Australian Parliament in late March rejected ratification of an extradition treaty with China, and officials in Ottawa have said it's unlikely Canada would conclude negotiations on extradition if the Chinese justice system remains marred by abuses. China also pushes people overseas to return on their own accord, allowing it to avoid any formal judicial procedures in other countries.

The number of Chinese people deported from Canada includes routine removals of people who have, for example, overstayed visas. But the situation is more complicated in corruption cases, where evidence often comes through abuse-prone investigations in China. That evidence can then be used to issue an Interpol Red Notice, which acts like an international arrest warrant and can set in motion Canadian deportation proceedings.

The Canada Border Services Agency has tended "to take Chinese government allegations of corruption face up, rather than look behind them," said Winnipeg refugee and immigration lawyer David Matas. "They act on the allegations of corruption despite the absence of evidence or the presence of evidence elicited only through torture or the threat of torture."

China has actively used the Interpol Red Notice system to chase corruption suspects overseas. In 2014, a state media report on China's anti-graft campaign said Red Notices had been issued for 503 Chinese people. (Interpol does not release per-country statistics.)

Secretive tactics

Corruption cases in China are often first investigated inside shuanggui, a secretive extra-legal system of internal Communist Party discipline that can hold people without charges and without access to a lawyer for lengthy periods of time, in order to extract confessions of guilt.

Discussion of shuanggui is banned even in Chinese courts, making its influence difficult to discern. But the system's central role in producing testimony against Chinese graft suspects means, immigration lawyers say, there is a strong likelihood evidence produced through torture is being used to underpin Red Notices.

In at least one case, members of the Communist Party have directly threatened to use the Interpol system against a person in Canada. Chinese businessman Peter Zhao recently fled to Canada after five days of interrogation by shuanggui investigators in which he said he was forced to sit in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time and repeatedly ordered to confess to bribery by interrogators who screamed, swore and insulted him.

It brought him to a mental breakdown. "I thought it would be better to be dead," said Mr. Zhao, who spoke on the condition that his real name and other identifying details not be used because he fears for the safety of family still in China.

After escaping to Canada, he received more than 10 threatening calls from Chinese graftbusters and officials. One came from a Communist Party member who warned that "if I did not co-operate, I would be classified as a suspect and would be placed under Interpol," Mr. Zhao said.

An Interpol Red Notice can serve as the basis for the Canada Border Services Agency to begin a deportation process for "criminal inadmissibility." Under this process, people legally inside Canada can be kicked out – even those with permanent residence.

"The evidence necessary in order to find that somebody is deportable on the basis of criminality is very, very slim," Prof. Aiken of Queen's University said.

A 2004 case made this clear. A Chinese woman, Rou Lan Xie, was accused by the Chinese government of embezzlement. The Canadian Federal Court of Appeal, in reviewing the case, said a Chinese arrest warrant – combined with a large quantity of unexplained funds in her possession – was enough to "to consider that the appellant had committed a serious crime."

"The fact that this evidence falls far short of the standard of proof in criminal cases is of no moment," the appeal court wrote. The "issue is not whether the appellant committed the crime of which she is accused. The issue is whether there are serious reasons for considering that she did."

In the years since that ruling, it has grown even more difficult for people to fight deportation, Prof. Aiken said. Under the Stephen Harper government, new rules constrained appeal options for permanent residents in criminal-inadmissibility cases. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has agreed to work even more closely with China on deportation.

Last September, the two countries said they would finalize preparations for a pilot project "where Chinese experts will be invited to assist in the verification of the identity of inadmissible persons from mainland China in order to facilitate their return from Canada to China."

The Canada Border Services Agency, in response to questions from The Globe, denied being swayed by China. "No foreign country, China included, influences who is removed from Canada," agency spokesman Mr. Dorion said.

"The decision to remove someone from Canada is not taken lightly," he said, and it requires that the CBSA prove to the Immigration and Refugee Board "that someone is inadmissible and provide evidence. When the person is a fugitive, the best evidence is often police reports and court records." That proof can come from foreign countries, he said, although outside evidence "is only one element of an investigation."

But Mr. Cannon, the lawyer, called for Canada to create a "neutral body that assesses the evidence from a real-world perspective that these things happen in China."

Prof. Aiken said a greater commitment is needed to ensuring deportees are not mistreated after they leave the country. "Canada needs to actually step up and do the monitoring – and not just hand off a person and say it's not our problem," she said.

Mr. Zhao, meanwhile, believes he has not yet been made subject to a Red Notice. (It can be difficult to know for certain if such an order has been made). But if that happens, he hopes Canadian authorities won't believe the evidence behind it.

"Most of the evidence gathered through the shuanggui method is false," he said.

Chinese-Canadian Jean Zou has been working to appeal her husband Wilson Wang's prison sentence in China after he was convicted of bribery charges. Zou says Wang was put into the shuanggui system of interrogation while in detention.

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