China's top legislature on Thursday ratified extradition treaties with Australia and France, which provided a legal groundwork to bring back fugitive suspects to receive prosecution and sentences in their home countries.
The treaty, ratified at the second session of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC), will further strengthen judicial cooperation between China and the two countries, especially in pursuing fugitives, including corrupt officials who go abroad to seek asylum, said a spokesman of the NPC Foreign Affairs Committee.
Since the late 1980s, some Chinese officials charged with economic crimes have chosen to flee the country. The suspects, most from the financial sector or state-owned enterprises (SOEs), used overseas connections to flee, according to the Supreme People's Procuratorate.
North America, Australia, and southeast Asia were preferred destinations, it said.
Statistics from the Ministry of Public Security show the economic investigation departments of Chinese police seized 56 leading fugitive economic crime suspects from more than 20 countries and regions, such as Kirgizstan, South Africa, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar, among others.
Police statistics showed there were more than 500 suspects at large overseas that were wanted for economic crimes, mostly graft.They were accused of crimes involving more than 70 billion yuan ($10 billion).
With the assistance of bilateral judicial cooperation and Interpol, the world police body, only a fraction of Chinese fugitive suspects were repatriated. In light of this, China has taken the repatriation of corrupt officials as a priority of its international judicial cooperation plan.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China signed 99 bilateral judicial assistance protocols with more than 50 countries and regions. This included 58 treaties in civil and judicial assistance, 30 extradition treaties, five in criminals transfer and six in the crackdown on national separatist forces, religious extremists and international terrorist forces.
When China signs judicial cooperation treaties with other nations, especially with developed countries, capital punishment often becomes the focus of debate.
But relevant parties have removed the hurdles caused by different legal systems. This was evident in a 2006 extradition treaty signed between China and Spain, the first foreign country to sign such an agreement.
According to the new treaties with Australia and France, the two countries which have no capital punishment, could refuse to extradite a suspect if he or she faced the death sentence in China.
Such treaties have stirred debate among the Chinese public. Some feared it might weaken China's anti-graft efforts by exempting runaway criminals from capital punishment.
However, a majority of legal experts largely held the view that "it was not whether to sentence criminals to death, but first and foremost to bring them back to face justice in China's own courts".
They believed it's an "empty talk" to discuss capital punishment if fugitives could not be brought back.
An exemption to execution was already made in the case of an official repatriated from the United States. In April 2006, a court in the southern province of Guangdong sentenced Yu Zhendong, a former bank official, to 12 years for embezzlement.
The former head of a Bank of China branch in Kaiping City was found responsible for the bank's losses of $82.5 million. He was returned in 2004 after China agreed it would not sentence him to death.
Other fugitives include Lai Changxing, the leading suspect in the country's most notorious smuggling case valued at $10 billion. For years, the Fujian Province native has been trying to gain refugee status in Canada. He currently resides in Vancouver where he is under house arrest.
Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei said, "the disparity in legal systems between China and other countries should not be obstacles for international cooperation, nor penalty-escaping pretense for corrupt officials".
China has strengthened its crackdown on transnational corruption crimes under the framework of the UN Convention Against Corruption in recent years. The country had also stepped up its international cooperation to recover money taken overseas by suspects.
In October 2006, the top legislature adopted an anti-money laundering law, the first of its kind in the country.
The definition of money laundering has since been extended to include corruption and bribe taking, violating financial management regulations and financial fraud.
Last year, China established the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention, which was to intensify corruption fighting and conduct more international exchanges in the field.
Vice Foreign Minister Wu told a UN anti-corruption meeting earlier this year that a large number of fugitive corrupt officials were still at large abroad and the number of successful cases in extraditing fugitive officials and recovering money under the framework of UN convention were still small. "Technical cooperation in the field has not been effectively carried out," he added.
Wu called for further strengthening political will in anti-graft cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit so as to reject any chance provided for corrupt officials.
(Xinhua News Agency April 25, 2008)