BEIJING (Reuters) - Canadian diplomats have had regular access to China's most wanted man, who was deported from Canada to China last year after a decades-long legal battle to face smuggling charges, an official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Beijing had sought the deportation of Lai Changxing for years, accusing him of running a multi-billion dollar smuggling ring in the southeastern city of Xiamen in the 1990s in one of China's biggest political scandals in recent times.
The Canadian official dismissed suggestions that China had barred visits to Lai, about whom little has been heard since he arrived back in China in July after he lost a legal battle lasting almost two decades.
"Diplomats have had regular consular access to Lai," the government official said, declining to comment any further.
Chinese state media said last December that Lai would be handed over to prosecutors.
The official spoke to Reuters after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he had raised the question of human rights in a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing on Wednesday.
Lai may face life imprisonment, state media has reported. But some legal experts and human rights activists have said it is unlikely Lai will receive a fair trial in China.
Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated.
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 bribing officials to allow a massive smuggling ring in a scandal that implicated more than 200 senior figures, including Jia's wife, Lin Youfang. She denied any wrongdoing.
Harper, in China for talks to boost trade, denies toning down his once strong line on human rights as bilateral economic ties boom.
"We look forward to continuing to strengthen our strategic partnership with China while of course also maintaining a frank and respectful dialogue on issues of human rights and the rule of law," he told a news conference.
Harper said he had raised some consular cases with Wen but gave no details.
China and Canada have argued too about the case of Uighur-Canadian Huseyin Celil, jailed in 2007 for terrorism.
Celil, also known as Husein Dzhelil, fled China in the mid-1990s and sought asylum through the U.N. refugee office in Turkey, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
Canada accepted him as a refugee and he obtained citizenship there in November 2005, according to Amnesty. But China considers Celil a Chinese citizen.
Harper did press Wen about the need for diplomats to visit Celil.
"The prime minister restated the government's desire to have consular access to Mr Celil," the official said.
Editing by Ben Blanchard