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BEIJING (Reuters) - Canada's foreign minister said Monday that the country's legal system must be allowed to independently take its course over the case of China's most wanted man, after his refugee claim was rejected and he was nearly deported this month.
Beijing has sought the deportation of Lai Changxing for years, accusing him of running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation in China's southeastern city of Xiamen in the 1990s.
Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated.
His deportation date is tentatively set for July 25, but that could be pushed back by months if he succeeds in further legal challenges.
"We have a legal process that as a minister I'm not allowed to get involved with," Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters in Beijing, referring to Lai.
"The government is before the courts, government agencies and institutions are before the courts to make our case for the extradition of this individual," he added.
"Both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white collar fraudsters," Baird said.
"We have to let the Canadian justice system fairly and independently take its course," he added. "I did caution my Chinese counterparts that they shouldn't count on it being overly expeditious."
Despite an assessment by Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board earlier this month that there was no apparent flight risk and that Lai could go free for now, the Federal Court stayed that decision later in the day, in response to a request from the Canadian Border Services Agency.
China's Foreign Ministry said last week it was paying close attention to the latest developments in the case, repeating that it wanted him back to face justice.
China says Lai lavished bribes on Chinese officials to avoid paying taxes and duties on goods ranging from fuel to cigarettes that were shipped into China's southeastern Fujian province.
Lai admitted in a 2009 interview with the Globe and Mail newspaper that he had avoided taxes by taking advantage of loopholes in the law, but he denies bribery charges. He said if he were not in Canada he would have been executed by now.
Canada does not have a death penalty and will not usually deport someone to a death-penalty state without assurance the suspect will not be executed.
"In terms of assurances, as I understand, the Chinese government ... has recently made changes with respect to capital punishment that no longer covers white collar crime," Baird said.
"In this particular case, we have no reason to doubt that commitment."
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 body 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.
"With the other consular case, I've obviously raised the concern that the government of Canada and the people of Canada have on the issue," he said, referring to Celil.
Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Daniel Magnowski