China formally charges smuggling kingpin Lai

BEIJING Mon Feb 13, 2012 5:49pm IST

Lai Changxing, who has been called China's most wanted fugitive, listens to a translator during a news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia September 18, 2007. REUTERS/Andy Clark/Files

Lai Changxing, who has been called China's most wanted fugitive, listens to a translator during a news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia September 18, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Andy Clark/Files

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Prosecutors have formally charged the alleged head of a vast smuggling ring, the official Xinhua news agency said on Monday, a man once dubbed China's most wanted man and deported by Canada last year after a decades-long legal battle.

China accuses Lai Changxing of running a multi-billion dollar smuggling operation in the southeast Chinese city of Xiamen that dates back to the 1990s.

Authorities have charged Lai with "masterminding a criminal ring engaged in smuggling and bribery", Xinhua said, citing a statement from the Xiamen prosecutors.

"After going through all the evidence and interrogating Lai, prosecutors confirmed that the facts are clear and the evidence is solid," Xinhua said.

It was not clear when the case would come to trial.

Lai's alleged crimes occurred in the special economic zone of Xiamen in Fujian province in the mid-1990s when Jia Qinglin, now the ruling Communist Party's fourth most senior leader, was the province's party boss.

Beijing has accused Lai's business empire, the Yuanhua Group, of organising a smuggling ring that implicated more than 200 senior figures.

Lai "bribed dozens of government officials and ordered his subordinates to do so, too, which involved a significant amount of money", Xinhua said. Lai and the other suspects, it said, had already confessed to the charges.

An official at the Xiamen prosecutor's office said by telephone that he had nothing to add to media reports.

Lai and his family fled to Canada in 1999, where he claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated. He was deported last July after a legal battle in which a Canadian court dismissed concerns he could be tortured or executed back home.

The decision to prosecute Lai comes after a visit last week to China by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said he had raised human rights issues in talks with Premier Wen Jiabao.

A Canadian official told Reuters that Canadian diplomats had regular access to Lai since his deportation.

Lai may face life imprisonment, state media has reported. But some legal experts and human rights activists have said it is unlikely he will receive a fair trial.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Ron Popeski)

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