05/17/2012 11:23 EDT | Updated 07/17/2012 05:12 EDT

China sentences fugitive who sought refuge in Canada to life in prison

BEIJING, China - The man once considered China's most-wanted fugitive was sentenced to life in prison Friday after he unsuccessfully fought an extradition battle for more than a decade to stay in Canada.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that Lai Changxing was convicted and sentenced for running a large-scale smuggling operation that paid off scores of Chinese government officials. Sentence was passed by the Intermediate People's Court in Xiamen, the port city which operated as his base.

The court additionally sentenced him to 15 years for bribery and ordered all of Lai's personal property seized.

Lai became China's most-wanted man after he fled to Canada in 1999 and became the centre of a 12-year extradition battle until he was deported last year. He had argued that he risked torture or execution if returned and would not get a fair trial in his home country.

But that legal battle ended in July when a federal court in Vancouver ruled Lai should not be considered a refugee and upheld his deportation.

In 2001, then-President Jiang Zemin sent the Canadian prime minister at the time, Jean Chretien, a diplomatic note with assurances Lai would not be executed if returned.

Lai's smuggling operation reached to the highest levels of government, involving a deputy police minister and implicating a member of the Communist Party's decision-making Politburo. Lai's network smuggled everything from cigarettes to cars to oil. The court said the operation totalled $3 billion and bribed 64 officials between 1996 and 1999.

Before fleeing to Canada Lai 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 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.