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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - China's most-wanted fugitive could be on a plane back home from Canada as early as Saturday unless a Canadian judge moves quickly to block his deportation, lawyers said on Thursday.
Federal Court Judge Michel Shore will decide on Thursday night or Friday morning whether to block the extradition of Lai Changxing, who says he does not believe Chinese assurances that he would not be tortured or executed if sent back.
Shore reserved judgment after several hours of arguments on whether it would be safe to extradite Lai, accused of running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation in China in the 1990s.
Lai's lawyer, David Matas, told Reuters in an email that if Shore ruled against his client, there were no further legal avenues to be pursued. Canadian government lawyer Helen Park said at the hearing that he could be extradited as early as Saturday.
China has told Canada in a diplomatic note that it would not put Lai to death or torture him, and that Canadian officials would have access to him.
"The Chinese government says it is assuring safeguards," Shore told Matas during the Ottawa court hearing, which was relayed by teleconference to British Columbia, where Lai is in detention.
Shore said these were "extraordinary" assurances from China, and he asked if the high profile of this case would not guarantee Lai's safety.
"These are not adequate assurances. They don't amount to anything," Matas replied.
Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated. Canada rejected his refugee claim, and he was taken into custody and nearly deported two weeks ago.
China says Lai bribed 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 denied bribery charges. He said if he were not in Canada he would have been executed by now.
Matas said Lai's brother and his accountant had both died in prison of unexplained causes and that the same fate could await Lai.
"He too could die in prison without an autopsy and without any explanation. The assurances do not provide for an autopsy, or even a viewing of the corpse," Matas said in a written submission.
"The notion that criminal procedures or the death penalty are easily verifiable is misplaced. The death penalty and criminal procedure assurances suffer from the problem that the courts in China are not public."
Matas said China has only assured that when the court holds open hearings into his case, Canadian officials may attend. He quoted the U.S. State Department as saying that Chinese courts use state-secret provisions to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, to counsel and to foreign observers.
Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board ruled on Wednesday that Lai could be released pending Thursday's hearing. The federal government quickly won a stay of that decision from another Federal Court judge, James O'Reilly, and kept Lai in custody.
The main Federal Court case is Lai Cheong Sing v Minister of Citizenship & Immigration, IMM-4373-11.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Janet Guttsman and Peter Galloway