Smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing, who spent a dozen years on the lam in Canada before being extradited to China last year, has been sentenced to life in prison by a court in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen.
The official Xinhua newswire reported that the 53-year-old Mr. Lai was convicted of smuggling and bribery charges. The court said Mr. Lai oversaw a vast smuggling operation that illegally moved some $3-billion worth of cars, cigarettes, oil and other goods through Xiamen in the 1990s. Mr. Lai was also found to have bribed 64 officials between 1996 and 1999.
He fled to Canada in 1999, sparking a prolonged crisis in relations between Beijing and Ottawa and a lengthy court battle over whether he should be allowed to stay in Canada as a refugee.
The guilty verdict Thursday was expected given that Mr. Lai's guilt had long been a stated fact in the official Chinese media.
"This was a predicable, even foreordained result. Having already sentenced to death 14 others and executed eight of these because of in some cases only tangential association to Mr. Lai, it was inconceiveable, politically, for the Chinese legal system to have given any other verdict, no matter what the evidence or legal defence," Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas said.
While Mr. Lai was in Canada, China said it considered him its most-wanted suspect. Mr. Lai's lawyers, meanwhile, argued against extradition on the grounds that it would be impossible for him to get a fair trial in China.
Though Canada eventually received assurances that Mr. Lai would not be executed, Mr. Lai's lawyers highlighted that both his brother and his accountant had died under mysterious circumstances after being convicted for their roles in the smuggling.
Before fleeing to Canada he lived a life of luxury in China complete with a bulletproof Mercedes Benz. He is alleged to have run a mansion in which he plied officials with liquor and prostitutes. At the time, state TV splashed pictures of the network's allegedly ill-gotten gains: a tiger skin rug laid out on a conference table, confiscated cars belonging to corrupt bureaucrats, a sack of gold rings, and a picture of a young woman, said to be a lover kept for one official by Mr. Lai.
Scores of officials and executives involved have been imprisoned and some executed over the scandal. Among those punished were a former deputy police minister, who was quietly removed from his posts as vice minister for public security and deputy chief of an anti-smuggling task force. The deputy mayor of Xiamen and the city's customs chief were also punished.
In Canada, Mr. Lai had avoided deportation by arguing he could face the death penalty or be tortured and would not get a fair trial in his home country. But that legal battle ended when a federal court in Vancouver ruled Mr. Lai should not be considered a refugee and upheld his deportation.
China promised Canada that Mr. Lai would not get the death penalty in 2001 when then-president Jiang Zemin sent the prime minister at the time, Jean Chrétien, a diplomatic note with assurances Mr. Lai would not be executed if returned.
With a report from Associated Press