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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada had little choice but to grant a work permit to Lai Changxing as he fights extradition to China, where he is one of country's most wanted fugitives, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said on Thursday.
Permission for the accused smuggling kingpin to get a job is another twist in a case that is a thorn in relations between China and Canada. Ottawa has denied Lai political asylum but it has also been blocked by the courts from sending him home.
The courts have ruled that people living in Canada under an order preventing their removal have the right to get a job if they have no other means of supporting themselves, Kenney said.
"I believe that the officials did so in this instance believe it was consistent with the court rulings. ... This was not a political decision it was an operational decision," Kenney said.
Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999, just as Chinese police were about to arrest him. He lives in Vancouver under a limited house arrest.
He is alleged to have built a multibillion-dollar operation that bribed officials to avoid paying taxes and duties on goods ranging from fuel to cigarettes that were smuggled into China's Fujian province in the 1990s.
Lai has denied criminal wrongdoing, and says that the allegations are politically motivated.
The Canadian government has supported China's bid to have Lai returned, but has been unable to convince its own courts that China will honor a pledge that Lai will not be executed or mistreated.
Canada does not have the death penalty and is prohibited from deporting accused criminals to countries where they will face capital punishment.
Lai was not available for comment on Thursday, and his lawyer was out of the country.
The issuing of a work permit also appears to be an admission by Canadian officials that Lai does not have access to a vast fortune they had alleged he had when he arrived in Canada.
Lai has said his legal and living expenses are being funded by friends, who he has declined to identify, saying they could be in danger if the Chinese government knew their names.
Reporting Randall Palmer, Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson