Authorities in the southeastern port city of Xiamen have handed a life sentence to former billionaire entrepreneur Lai Changxing, who fought extradition from Canada for more than a decade before returning home amid assurances he would not be executed.
Lai, described by China's official news agency as "the kingpin of a notorious smuggling ring," was sentenced on Friday by the Xiamen Intermediate People's Court, official media reported.
"The sentence was handed down given the graveness of Lai's offences and an extremely large amount of money involved, and Lai as the mastermind should be held responsible for all the crimes his syndicate committed," Xinhua news agency quoted the court as saying.
All of Lai's personal assets and "illegal income" were confiscated, and he was deprived of his political rights for life, it said.
Lai, 53, was found by the court to have formed a smuggling network with bases in Hong Kong and Xiamen during the breakneck economic growth and freewheeling capitalism of the 1990s.
From December 1995 to May 1999, Lai's syndicate smuggled cigarettes, cars, refined oil, vegetable oil, chemical materials, textile materials, and other commodities worth 27.395 billion yuan (U.S.$4.35 billion) and evaded duties of 13.999 billion yuan, Xinhua said.
Lai and his collaborators bribed government officials with 39.13 million yuan between 1991 and 1999, the report said.
The smuggling operation in the southeastern port city of Xiamen was valued at U.S. $10 billion, official media reports have said.
Lai, who fought extradition for 12 years after fleeing to Canada in 1999, was repatriated in July 2011 on the understanding that he would not face the death penalty.
Canadian authorities had previously blocked his extradition because China has already executed some of those involved in the scandal, and Canada is bound by its own laws not to extradite people to countries where they could face the death penalty.
Lai's business empire, the Yuanhua Group, was accused by Beijing of bribing officials to allow a massive smuggling ring in a scandal that implicated more than 200 senior figures.
The authorities have put more than 300 suspects on trial and sentenced 14 to death, including a former vice minister of public security, in a case Beijing has used for a propaganda campaign against corruption, according to reports.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie