BEIJING, Mar 14 (AP) -- China will not impose a death sentence on a fugitive fighting in Canadian courts against being deported to face charges he ran a billion-dollar smuggling ring, a spokesman for the country's top court said.
The case of Lai Changxing is one of several that have strained relations between China and Canada, especially as the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper steps up its criticism of Beijing's human rights record.
"We made the promise (not to sentence Lai to death) to seek his repatriation, and it is the only correct option to punish crimes and safeguard the interests of the nation," Ni Shouming said in an interview late Wednesday with xinhuanet.com, a news Internet portal in China.
China accuses Lai of masterminding a southern China-based network that smuggled as much as US$10 billion (€7.7 billion) in goods, including cigarettes, vehicles and chemicals, with the protection of corrupt government officials.
Lai, his wife Tsang Mingna and their three children fled to Canada and applied for asylum in 1999. They say the refugee board that initially turned down their asylum claim overlooked the nature of political persecution in China.
Ni said China could have refused to make a promise not to impose a death sentence and given up trying to get Lai back, but decided it was better to make the promise.
Last year, Canada's Federal Court stayed a deportation order against Lai, allowing him to launch further appeals against the order. The court's ruling said there appeared to be no guarantees Lai would not face danger or torture if deported.
Canadian authorities are technically bound by laws that protect asylum seekers from being deported to countries where judicial systems apply torture.
Lai's bid for refugee status had already been denied all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In 2001, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien a diplomatic note with assurances Lai would not be executed if returned to China.